When Nicole MacGibbon and her husband, Alfredo Cordova, received a notice from their landlords last spring that gave them two months to move out, the couple found themselves among the ranks of pet owners struggling to find affordable pet-friendly housing in Vancouver’s tight rental market.
At the time, the couple had a combined monthly income of less than $1,200 because neither worked. Mr. Cordova was battling cancer and Ms. MacGibbon had left her job to take care of her husband full-time. Desperate to find an affordable place that would welcome their three cats, Ms. MacGibbon started cold-calling building-management companies and scanning online ads.
“I didn’t give up until like three or four days until the end of the month, and then I realized, ‘Okay, it’s not happening,’” said Ms. MacGibbon, who instead ended up moving out of the region to Vernon, B.C.
In Vancouver’s tight rental market, where vacancy rates remain near zero, renters with pets have a particularly difficult time finding housing, and tenant advocates are urging the B.C. government to add protections for renters with animals as a new task force examines the province’s tenancy laws.
B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Act gives landlords the right to either prohibit renters from having pets or limit the type, number and size of animals, though in practice many landlords opt to simply ban pets altogether.
Pets OK BC, an advocacy group that formed last year to lobby for more pet-friendly housing, estimates that only about 10 per cent of rental vacancies are pet-friendly, and rental rates for those units tend to be high.
“It’s a class thing,” said Erin Filtness, one of the organization’s co-founders. “If you have enough money to afford a detached home, you can afford a pet.”
Ms. Filtness hopes that B.C. will eventually implement legislation similar to Ontario’s tenancy law. The Ontario Residential Tenancy Act does not permit landlords to prohibit pets in tenancy agreements unless animals damage property or disrupt other tenants. Landlords can refuse tenants with pets, but they can’t evict tenants who purchase or adopt animals after a lease has already been signed.
When 24-year-old Samarra Goldglas moved to B.C. from Ontario with her miniature schnauzer and orange tabby cat, she had no idea landlords in this province could ban pets.
Ms. Goldglas sent several offers to landlords advertising vacant apartments online, most of which were unanswered or rejected. In order to find a place, she had to change her apartment-hunting strategy: “I discovered that there is this whole ‘dog- and cat-friendly’ button that you have to click [on Craigslist],” she says.
“When I checked the ‘pet-friendly box,’ vacant apartments shrank from a few hundred to like 10.”
Last summer, a building manager gave Ms. Goldglas permission to rent a one-bedroom unit in an East Vancouver building for $1,100, even though the owner of the apartment complex doesn’t allow pets. She said the place is infested with cockroaches and mice, the paint-stained floor is uneven and her screen door doesn’t work. When she first moved in, the apartment had bedbugs.
In order to keep her pets, Ms. Goldglas continues to live in a space that she describes as “filthy.”
The B.C. SPCA estimates that housing-related circumstances account for 20 per cent of surrendered animals in the province. Last year, more than 1,700 animals were given up by owners who couldn’t find adequate and affordable housing. That figure doesn’t include animals passed on to friends and family or abandoned outdoors, said Amy Morris, public policy and outreach manager with the B.C. SPCA.
B.C.’s NDP government came to power on a platform that focused on protecting housing for both owners and renters, and the province has since introduced several measures to limit rent increases and evictions.
Selina Robinson, the minister of municipal affairs and housing, sent a statement that acknowledged that pet owners are particularly vulnerable when seeking apartments.
“When the vacancy rate is low, landlords are able to be more selective with tenants, making it more difficult for tenants with children, with pets, or with accessibility needs, as well as those with low income,” the statement said. “Renters are faced with tough choices, and sometimes no choice at all.”
The statement did not address whether the province intends to make any changes to protect renters with pets. A subsequent statement from the ministry said the government wants to “strike the right balance” between the rights of tenants and landlords.
Earlier this month, the government announced a new task force to investigate the current state of rental housing across the province.
The CEO of LandlordBC, David Hutniak, argued landlords should be allowed to continue banning pets because they must be able to ensure all of their tenants enjoy comfortable, quiet living arrangements. He added that landlords and property owners are responsible for damage caused by pets, which can be costly.
Mr. Hutniak refuted the idea that the proportion of pet-friendly apartments is low.
“You have only to walk through the West End of Vancouver, where rental housing is the dominant form of housing, and you will see many, many, pets in the neighbourhood,” he said. “They are clearly housed somewhere.”
Russ Godfrey, a former government employee who spent 16 years with the Residential Tenancy Branch and who now advocates for tenants’ rights, said he believes the stigma around pets is unfounded.
He said he only encountered two extreme cases of damage caused by pets during his time with the tenancy branch. In one case, a cat ruined a carpet by urinating excessively outside of its litter box.
“Of course, there will always be people who don’t abide by the rules,” said Mr. Godfrey. “But [a bad pet] is no different than a bad roommate. Would you put a blanket prohibition on roommates?”
During their apartment hunt, Ms. MacGibbon and Mr. Cordova had to face their own tough choice: either give up the cats or leave Vancouver.
The pair briefly discussed giving up their pets, but rejected the idea. “For Alfredo, [the cats] were such a pet therapy,” says Ms. MacGibbon. “Whenever I was gone, the pets were always there and he really took a great joy in having them.”
Unable to find an affordable pet-friendly home, Ms. MacGibbon and her husband packed their belongings and moved in with Ms. MacGibbon’s sister in Vernon, B.C. Mr. Cordova lived out his remaining months in a home that wasn’t his own. He died in 2017.
“I’m angry,” said Ms. MacGibbon. “If everything could have just held off for another three months, Alfredo could have passed away at home and his last months could have been comfortable and not chaotic.”