GREENS BILL: Renting with pets

Today Mark re-introduced the Greens' Renting with Pets Bill that will allow South Australians to rent with their pets.  Currently tenants have no rights at all when it comes to keeping their pets with them and this Bill, which is based on the laws in Victoria and ACT, is a much fairer system. Having to give up your much loved pet in order to have a place to live, is not a choice the Greens think people should have to make.


RESIDENTIAL TENANCIES (RENTING WITH PETS) AMENDMENT BILL 2020

Today, September 23, is “Dogs in Politics Day” – a tradition that goes back to 1952 – which is a fitting day to be reintroducing the Greens’ Renting with Pets Bill.

As I outlined in my second reading speech on the 2019 Bill last October, this Bill addresses an area that is well overdue for reform, and, if passed, will have a significant positive effect on many lives – both human and non-human.

Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world with 61% of Australian households having pets today, and 90% of them having had pets at some time.  Many see their pets not just as companions, but as treasured members of the family. They refer to their dogs and cats as their “fur babies” or “fur kids” – which highlights the important place these pets have within families.

So, to be told by a landlord that you’re not allowed to take your beloved pet with you to your new home, is nothing less than heartbreaking.  Having to abandon the family pet in order to have a place to live should not be a choice that anyone should have to make.  Sadly however, this is a reality for many South Australians.

Last October I noted that during the 2018-19 year, 259 South Australian pets were surrendered to the RSPCA and 108 were surrendered to the Animal Welfare League simply because their owners could not find pet-friendly rental accommodation. In fact, there were more pets surrendered to animal shelters than these 367 pets because the Animal Welfare League had to divert some of the surrenders to other places while they underwent a redevelopment. 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This figure doesn’t include the people who give up their pet to a family member or friends, or those to surrender their pet to a shelter other than the two main ones in Adelaide.  It doesn’t include those people who choose to live in their car rather than give up their pet, or those who move back in with their parents.  It doesn’t include those who choose to remain in substandard rental accommodation on insecure periodic leases while they search for a better place to live that allows them to keep their pet with them.  It also doesn’t include those people experiencing domestic violence who choose to stay in that situation in order to protect their pet, because there are so few options for them to find alternative accommodation that lets them bring their pet with them.

Last Friday the Advertiser reported that one of the side effects of COVID 19 is that the RSPCA has seen a surge in animal adoptions, creating a record high.  The Acting Chief Executive Kevin Tinkler was quoted as saying “Many people, for the first time, have discovered the benefits of having animals in their lives”.  Adoptions peaked in March, at the height of the COVID restrictions.

That’s great news.  Unfortunately, it’s accompanied by some bad news.  Although overall there were fewer pets being surrendered compared to the previous year, there was in fact an increase in the number of pets being surrendered because their owner couldn’t find a place to rent that allowed their pet.  So, where the RSPCA had 259 pets surrendered to them in the 2019 financial year because of this issue, there were 293 surrendered in the 2020 financial year. That’s an increase of 13% in one year.  This isn’t something that we can continue to ignore. 

The last Census informed us that 28% of South Australian rent their home and this figure is growing.  With an average of 61% owning pets – that’s a lot of South Australians affected by this growing problem.  The time has come to fix it.

Since I introduced this Bill last October, the renting with pets laws in Victoria as well as in the ACT, have come into effect. This Bill is largely based on their laws. The Northern Territory also passed similar laws in February this year but have delayed commencement due to COVID, and the Queensland Government began looking at similar changes late last year.

The ACT legislation was the first Australian jurisdiction to commence these new laws. The ACT laws came into effect on November 1 last year and then the Victorian legislation commenced on March 1 this year. 

The very next day after the Victorian laws came into effect, a Victorian couple put the new laws to the test and applied to keep their dog Rocko in their Wodonga rental home.  Their landlord decided not to consent to Rocko and applied to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.  The Tribunal ruled in the tenant’s favour and Rocko was allowed to live with his human companions.  What a great result, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more good news stories like this as time goes on and more and more Australian jurisdictions get on board with this important legislative change.

A significant part of the problem, which my Bill addresses, is that the default position of most residential tenancy agreements is that pets are not allowed.

This Bill flips this around, making it the default position that pets are allowed.  There will of course be circumstances where keeping a certain type of pet, or pets, in certain types of rental premises won’t be appropriate, and the Bill allows for these exceptions.

However, rather than the landlord, or their Agent, taking a blanket “no pets” approach to residential tenancy agreements, if the landlord doesn’t consent to the tenant’s application for a pet or pets, they can apply to SACAT, and SACAT will make the decision, having consideration for the circumstances in each case.

The Greens believe that this is a much fairer system that what we currently have. 

To fully explain how the provision in this Bill will operate, I have an Explanation of Clauses which I will seek to incorporate.

In the development of this Bill, we consulted with Shelter SA, SACOSS, the South Australian Tenants Information Advisory Service, the Australian consumer advocacy organisation Choice, Community Housing Council of SA, Better Renting, RSPCA, the Real Estate Institute of SA, the Landlords Association and a number of Property Managers.  We’d like to put on the record our thanks to each of these organisations and individuals who have given us their time and feedback. 

In fact, the differences between this Bill and the 2019 Bill, are in response to feedback from REISA, the Landlords Association and property managers. One such change was to insert a new provision so that landlords can give written notice to their tenants requiring them to restrain their pets during inspections. This was raised as a health and safety issue for people conducting the inspections and is a concern that can be easily addressed.

It’s also important to acknowledge the long list of South Australians who provided us with their stories about renting with their pets.  These lived experiences must be front and centre in our considerations on how we legislate to address this problem.  I’d like to put a few of these on the record.

Dianne’s story goes like this:

“While my kids were growing up we had a king charles spaniel and we had to hide her as most places would not allow animals. My story right now is, my kids are all grown up and moved out our family rented home. I stayed with my son for 18 months trying to find a place that would allow me to have a cat. During 8 months of hard looking daily not one came up.

I would like a cat and a dog or 2 cats, they prolong life, they reduce stress, and they have every right to have a home like humans do. There is a lot of mental health issues today and pets help to make changes in this.”

Kate tells us her story:

“I’m trying to get into the rental market from my parents family home. We are finding it extremely difficult finding a house that will even consider pets that suits us, our price and in an area that is suitable. All currently have turned us down as soon as we’ve said we have a golden retriever. She is family. She is my child. Other people can have their kids in a rental home. Why can’t I have my dog who is my child with me? I shouldn’t have to give her up to have a roof over my head. You wouldn’t abandon a child, why are people expected to abandon pets.”

Maria’s story goes like this:

“I currently live alone and have a pet dog who I might have to give up because my lease is up in February and my rent is too high to renew. There is a serious lack of houses that are near to my work that allow pets that are at a price I can afford on my own. My other option is to try to hide my dog and risk being evicted if she was to be found which isn’t a good option either. I have a high stress job and coming home to a pet greatly reduces that and makes my life more enjoyable.”

Holly tells us:

“I moved to Adelaide from the Eyre Peninsula for uni and had to leave my dog I’ve had for 15 years behind with my parents. My mum has since become very ill and is currently recovering from electroconvulsive therapy so she is not always up to looking after an elderly dog at the moment.

I have always struggled with depression and anxiety and my dog has been my anchor during dark times, I have recently been diagnosed with PTSD and am desperately missing having my dog during this period of intense therapy and medication changes. She’s a well trained, elderly miniature poodle who doesn’t even bark because she is deaf. I’d love to be able to have grounds to negotiate with my landlord about having her live with me.”

The final story I’d like to tell is from Emma:

“A few rentals back I was in a nice little unit in the North Eastern suburbs, great rental agent, and really lovely landlords, but when I asked during my second year of renting, if I could get a cat as I was lonely and deeply missing having a pet (I’d not been able to have one at my previous rental), I was told no in no uncertain terms. There was no room for negotiation or discussion. It was an absolute no, and led to me searching for a new rental that would allow a pet.

Thankfully, I’ve be very lucky since then to have found rentals that have allowed a pet because I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I had to give up my cat in order to have a home. It wouldn’t feel like a home without her. I honestly don’t understand why landlords are so opposed to tenants having a pet (or two), I mean, we already have to pay a substantial bond when we move in so if there was any damage it’s covered.”

As I mentioned last year, I have a petition on my website which calls on the SA Parliament to support laws that make pets welcome in rental properties.  When I last introduced this Bill, there were just over 400 signatures from South Australians.  The number currently stands at over 1300.

The Greens aren’t alone in the campaign to make it easier for people to rent with their pets.  Shelter SA have long campaigned to allow renters to have pets as has the renter organisation Better Renting.  Joel Dignam, Executive Director of Better Renting, in a media release yesterday commented that rental laws should be changed so that renters can have pets as easily as homeowners.  Mr Dignam said:

"This proposed reform would mean that landlords need a fair reason before they can block their tenants from having a pet. This is a positive step. If you rent your home, it’s your home, and the law should reflect that.”

Unsurprisingly, the RSPCA have also been calling for our laws to be reformed.  In a media release yesterday, RSPCA South Australia’s Animal Welfare Advocate Dr Rebekah Eyers commended the real estate industry for encouraging landlords to offer pet friendly properties but said this approach had not worked.  Dr Eyers said:

“The only way to fix this serious human and animal welfare issue is through legal reform. 

“South Australia needs to catch up with modern thinking around pets in rentals, and align with Victoria, the ACT and the NT. They all have laws designed to give renters with pets greater access to secure housing.”

The media release reflects on the distress experienced by RSPCA staff, as well as the pet owners and the pets.  It continues:

For an organisation focused on rehoming animals to responsible owners, seeing the bonds between good owners and their pets torn apart is distressing for RSPCA staff. Cher Long, who works in the organisation’s strays and surrenders area, is concerned for the emotional wellbeing of people forced to surrender animals in these circumstances. 

“I can’t count the number of owners I’ve comforted as they part with pets they adore, simply because they can’t find anywhere to rent that allows animals,” Ms Long said.

“These are good people, good pet owners – yet they’re being knocked back just because their family happens to include a dog or a cat. And the animals are suffering too, because they suddenly find themselves living in an unfamiliar environment without their owners.”

Pet’s play such an important part in our lives and have a huge positive influence.  They improve our lives in many ways.  Owning a pet has been shown to have psychological benefits for child development and for adults and a positive impact on our health and wellbeing.  Basically, pets make us happier and healthier.

Let’s change the law to make pets welcome in SA.

Finally, I commend the bill to the chamber.


EXPLANATION OF CLAUSES

Part 1—Preliminary

1—Short title

2—Commencement

3—Amendment provisions

These clauses are formal.

Part 2—Amendment of Residential Tenancies Act 1995

4—Amendment of section 49—Residential tenancy agreements

This new subsection clarifies that an order of the Tribunal will be taken to be a term of the residential tenancy agreement.

5—Insertion of Part 4 Division 6A

This clause inserts a new Part 4 Division 6A as follows:

66A Keeping of pets on rented premises

This clause allows people to keep a pet or pets at their rented premises, other than in certain circumstances. 

Renters are required to request their landlord’s consent to keep a pet or pets. The landlord can respond and provide written consent, including imposing reasonable conditions relating to the number of pets, cleaning and maintenance relating to the keeping of pets and any other condition approved by SACAT (the Tribunal). However, if the landlord has not given written consent or applied to the Tribunal within 14 days after receiving the application, the landlord will be taken to have granted consent.

66B Landlord may seek Tribunal orders

This clause provides that a landlord can apply to the Tribunal for an order to refuse consent to the keeping of a pet or pets, or a pet of a specified kind, under a residential tenancy agreement. A landlord can also apply for an order excluding all pets, or pets of a specified kind from the premises under a residential tenancy agreement, from the date specified in the order.

An application must be made to the Tribunal within 14 days after receipt of the application under section 66A(2).

The Tribunal can then make:

* an order to refuse consent to the keeping of a pet or pets, or a pet of a specified kind;

* an order excluding all pets, or pets of a specified kind from the premises;

* an order revoking a consent under section 66A;

* an order varying or revoking a condition of consent under 66A;

* an order permitting a specified pet or pets, or pets of a specified kind, to be kept on the premises; or

* any other orders as the Tribunal considers appropriate

The factors that the Tribunal must consider include the type of pet, the suitability of the premises, the character and nature of the appliances, fixtures and fittings, whether it would result in unreasonable damage or pose an unacceptable risk to public health and safety or any other matter that the Tribunal considers relevant. 

The Tribunal may impose conditions on the consent as they consider appropriate.

The landlord may also apply to the Tribunal for an order for a pet or pets to be excluded from the premises where the pet or pets are being kept on the premises without consent.

The following orders can be made for a specified period or if not specified will remain in place until a further order by the Tribunal regardless of whether a new residential tenancy agreement is entered into during the period -

* an order to refuse consent to the keeping of a pet or pets of a specified kind;

* an order excluding all pets or pets of a specified kind;

* an order permitting a specified pet or pets or pets of a specified kind; or

* any ancillary or other order under 66B(4)(f).

An order that does not specify a period will be able to give certainty in the longer term, to the landlord and any prospective tenants about the keeping of pets on the premises.

On application by the landlord of their agent, the Tribunal may also make orders that the landlord or agent may refuse consent to the keeping of a pet or pets, or a pet of a specified kind, in relation to multiple properties owned by the landlord.

66C Limitation of landlord's liability

This clause clarifies that a landlord or their agent has no additional duty of care arising from a consent to keep a pet or pets.

66D Pets to be restrained during inspections etc

This clause provides that a landlord or their agent, may give written notice to their tenant or tenants, requiring the pet to be restrained during an inspection by the landlord or their agent, or by prospective purchasers.  The notice will have effect for the period specified in the notice, or until the termination of the residential tenancy agreement, whichever is the earlier.

A contravention of this requirement is a breach of the residential tenancy agreement.

Maximum penalty - $1,250.