When Kyle and Gail Pivetti decided in April 2012 to move from St. Cloud, Minn., to central Vermont, they booked plane tickets to visit the area, scope out neighborhoods and make a decision on the best living place for themselves and their Boston terriers, Sophie and Scout. They did not anticipate the circumstance that would essentially make that decision for them.
In advance of the trip, they began checking rental listings. “The first thing I learned is that there’s not a lot online,” Gail Pivetti says. “So we were a little worried about that, but we thought, Vermont’s small, and maybe they just don’t do things online.”
During their May visit, the Pivettis met with property managers and learned “the pet thing was really an issue,” Gail says. “Most apartment managers said outright, no pets.”
Their initial worry soon turned into anxiety. Kyle had accepted a full-time teaching position at Norwich University to begin in August, and Gail had picked up adjunct work at the school. As time wore on with no dog-friendly options appearing, the couple grew increasingly desperate. “We kind of had the conversation about what we’d do if we couldn’t find a place that would take our dogs,” Gail says.
While the Pivettis’ clock was ticking, Kim Stinson was making plans to return to Vermont from Alaska, where she had worked as a dog trainer. “I knew I wanted to move back to the area,” says the Johnson State College graduate, “so I started looking for work and looking for housing at the same time.”
Stinson received a job offer from the Central Vermont Humane Society with a start date of May 1. But she still hadn’t found a place that would take her, her daughter, her adult cat, Solstice, and an avalanche-rescue German shepherd named Echo. Many rental inquiries were simply unreturned.
Both families finally made it to Vermont. The Pivettis signed a lease for a Montpelier house sight unseen. “Once we found one place that took our dogs, we snapped it up really quickly,” Gail says.
Stinson made use of her Vermont connections. A friend with whom she had trained horses knew of a rental in Calais. “She was a wonderful reference for me,” Stinson says. “And that was, I think, the only reason I was able to find a place. I got lucky. But it was hard. And it still took an extra month.”
That extra month was difficult not only for Stinson but for the employer awaiting her arrival.
“We had to wait. It had an impact on us here,” says CVHS operations director Anne Ward. “For a dog trainer with a certified avalanche dog to have trouble [with renting] is really discouraging for regular people with regular dogs.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association “U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook” ranks Vermont No. 1 in the nation for pet ownership, with 70.8 percent of all Green Mountain households having at least one pet. Housing is difficult to find in Vermont even without animals. With them, it can be a battle.
Ward says it’s impossible to tell, from CVHS data, how many newcomers to the state are forced to give up their pets before moving there. But the organization does keep statistics on the number of owner-relinquished (OR) animals brought to the central Vermont facility. In 2012, it received 14 OR dogs and 49 OR cats due to landlord issues. The 2013 numbers so far for landlord-related ORs are 13 cats and six dogs.
Ward is no stranger to the complexities of this issue, both as a renter with pets and as a landlord. For five years, she opened a portion of her Montpelier house to tenants, some with pets. She has since stopped.
“It was really rare to have someone that didn’t end up costing me a lot in the end, or devaluing the apartment in the long term,” she says.
Herbert and Tina Heath, owners of Heath Apartment Rentals in Barre, manage 60 rental units in central Vermont. They have a no-pets policy.
Herbert Heath tells the story of a building the couple purchased on Perry Street that had been inhabited by cats. After they tore up the hardwood floors and the subflooring, the cat smell remained. “We found that, even though that house had been vacant for a while, that cat urine was still wet down under the rafters,” he says. The damages: $5000.
“If you have to change the rugs in a small apartment, it can be up to $3000,” Heath adds. “And you won’t know that the pet has made a mess of your apartment until after the tenant has left.”
Herbert Heath has been in the apartment business for 40 years and is president of the Central Vermont Landlords Association. He says he likes cats and dogs. He just can’t afford to have them in his buildings. “When you’re renting apartments, and if you’re doing it the way you should, and if you keep them up the way you should, you could very easily put as much profit as you make right back into those houses,” he says. “So you have to try to avoid anything that’s going to cost you a lot of money, because it’s just not in the budget.”
The Heaths, like all Vermont landlords, are required by law to make exceptions to the no-pet policy for service and assistance animals.
Inquiries about housing and service or assistance animals account for about a third of the calls Ericka Reil receives at the Montpelier-based Vermont Center for Independent Living, where Bubba, a massive Belgian shepherd, greets people at the door.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals — guide dogs for the visually impaired being the most commonly known — are allowed anywhere humans can go. And the Fair Housing Act allows assistance animals, which can provide companionship, support, therapy and other benefits, to live in their owners’ dwellings, even those with no-pet policies.
Reil, VCIL’s librarian and information, referral and assistance coordinator, says many people aren’t aware of these laws. She recalls once encountering a man who chose to live homeless because he feared he’d be separated from his companion animal. Part of Reil’s job is to help people with disabilities understand their rights regarding animals and housing. She also helps them understand the distinction between the everyday house pet and service or assistance animals.
“I advise people to ask for what’s called a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act,” Reil says. The request may require medical documentation, though she notes that individuals are not required to specify a disability.
“Sometimes I even get a landlord calling me saying, ‘My tenant wants to have an animal. I don’t know the law,’” she says.
Dena Estivill, a resident of North Barre Manor, serves on the Barre City ADA Committee and volunteers with VCIL as a peer leader. Her own case illustrates the need for education about accommodation for assistance animals. After complications from a routine surgery resulted in a saddle pulmonary embolism, Estivill lost 75 percent of her sight and suffered nerve damage to the legs and feet.
“I had to learn to walk again,” Estivill says. “My theory was that, if I had a dog, I would have to get up and get out and bring her for walks.” She found her first support animal, a terrier-Australian shepherd mix named Inde, at a pound in Indiana.
North Barre Manor, part of the Barre Housing Authority, allows dogs with restrictions and a $300 pet deposit. Estivill paid the deposit and purposefully chose a dog that fell within the weight limit. Reil explains that Estivill could have gotten a fee waiver because the dog was acting as a support animal. But Estivill says that when she got her dog, she wasn’t aware of Fair Housing Act laws. BHA executive director Charles “Chip” Castle says a tenant who has paid a pet deposit for an animal can have that deposit refunded, interest included, if a reasonable accommodation request is granted.
Increasingly, Vermonters are embracing home sharing as an alternative to the traditional rental. Is it a better option for those with pets?
According to Barre-based Home Share Now executive director Christina Goodwin, home-share providers who wish to keep their pets, but who may be unable to care for the animals, can ask for a pet-care exchange in the application. Home seekers can also request pet-friendly homes. Goodwin says 25 percent of matched participants reported pet care as an exchange in the match.
When Janis Moore approached Home Share Now in June 2010 with her human-animal housing needs, she gave the organization a benchmark challenge. “She was coming to us and saying, ‘I want housing, and it has to be a place where I can bring my cows,’” Goodwin recalls.
At the time, Moore lived in Ascutney, and her herd boarded on a farm in Springfield. But the Springfield farmer had decided to retire, and Moore’s landlord wanted to renovate and couldn’t have tenants living on the property. Moore took that opportunity to seek housing closer to central Vermont. She had a long commute to her then-job as an AgrAbility specialist at the VCIL in Montpelier, where she assisted farmers with disabilities. “You can’t bring the cows into the city of Montpelier,” Moore says.
Moore landed a successful home-share match in Wells River, in Orange County. For the past three years, she and her dog have lived with Dorothy Stevens, now 96. Her small herd boards on a farm half a mile away. “It’s the first time that my cows, my dog, myself and my mailbox have all been in the same town,” Moore says.
What’s the best recourse for those who seek a traditional rental with an average household pup or kitty in tow? Finding one is not easy, but it’s also not impossible. Vermont Sen. Anthony Pollina and his wife, Deborah Wolf, own a pet-friendly three-unit rental property on the Montpelier outskirts.
“We really see that, for a lot of people, a dog or a cat is an important part of the family and is an important companion,” Pollina notes. “It’s hard enough to find adequate housing, affordable housing in this area. To put up another barrier and say, ‘We’re not going to rent to you because you have a dog or a cat,’ that really went against our way of thinking,” he says.
Pollina adds that when the couple advertises a rental unit, they specify that dogs and cats are welcome.
“We have had more problems cleaning up after people who smoked cigarettes than we’ve had problems cleaning up after people who’ve had dogs,” Pollina remarks.
The Central Vermont Humane Society’s Ward, who once successfully persuaded a landlord with a no-pets policy to admit her own dog, says the key to finding a rental that accepts house pets is to take responsibility and make your pet “marketable.”
“There are a variety of things that you can do to communicate with your landlord effectively about your animals,” Ward says. “The best way to go into it is, just like you would for yourself, have references and have a plan. Give your animal a dossier.” For dogs, she recommends obtaining a Canine Good Citizen certification through the American Kennel Club. “That is going to, for me, say, ‘OK, this is an animal who has received a certain amount of training,’” Ward says. “This is an owner that is taking responsibility for the pet.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Pets vs. Landlords"