Why Vancouver's common 'no-pets' clause presents particular challenges for tenants with disabilities
Human rights lawyer says landlords often don’t understand their duty to accommodate a disabled tenant
Megan Milton was going to couchsurf with a friend for a month, but a month turned into four because no one would rent to an unemployed woman with a dog.
In February 2020, Milton had a well-paying office job and rented an apartment in Vancouver. Then within a week, she lost her job and received an eviction notice. After the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, Milton found it increasingly hard to find a new job or a dog-friendly apartment within her budget.
Milton, who is visually impaired, faced a hard choice: give up her dog who provides her with emotional support, or move into her friend's dining room until her financial situation improved. She chose couchsurfing.
"By the technical definition, I was homeless. And that happened mostly because I wasn't able to find housing with the dog," said Milton.
Milton is just one of many Vancouverites with a disability who struggle to find housing, especially when they have a pet. Because her pug is not a certified service dog, Milton cannot take advantage of the exemptions stated in B.C.'s Residential Tenancy Act for disabled people with service animals.
For Milton, giving up her pug, named Dog, was never an option. She says he helps her get out of the house when he needs to go on a walk and has kept her company through the social isolation of the pandemic. She describes him as her "best bud."
"He's there for all the struggles, when my Doordash order is 45 minutes late, or, you know, literally being homeless. He is there to be a shoulder to cry on," she said.
Milton has since found a job and now lives in a pet-friendly shared house — but the possibility of another eviction now hangs over her head. She says her landlord will likely put the house up for sale in the spring and she will have to look for housing again. It would be her third no-fault eviction in as many years.
Finding a rental home without a no-pets clause has long been a challenge for tenants in Vancouver.
According to the B.C. SPCA, 25 per cent of dogs and cats they receive are surrendered because their owners can't find pet-friendly housing. This amounts to 1,150 pets that end up at a shelter every year.
In a 2018 report, advocacy organization Pets OK B.C. stated that even though more pet-friendly housing is being built, much of this housing stock remains inaccessible to middle-class renters.
The situation is particularly challenging for people with disabilities because of the legal grey area between the province's Residential Tenancy Act and Human Rights Code when it comes to tenants who have pets that aren't certified as service animals, according to lawyer Robert Patterson.
"Under the Residential Tenancy Act, a landlord is allowed to restrict pets," said Patterson, a legal advocate at the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre.
But, he added, the B.C. Human Rights Code states that landlords also have a duty to accommodate disabled tenants who rely on their pet in connection to their disability — whether the animal is certified or not.
Patterson says that the two pieces of legislation don't give a clear answer to situations in which a tenant is advised by a medical professional to get an emotional support animal, but their landlord doesn't allow pets.
"I think there's a good argument that a landlord should respect the human rights of the tenant and permit them to have a pet," he said.
Human rights perspective
B.C. Human Rights Clinic director Laura Track says in some cases, no-pets clauses can be a potential violation of disabled people's right to equal housing.
Track says expanding certification to different animals is not the answer.
"I don't think certification is helpful," she said. "And, in fact, I think it confuses the issue even more, because landlords and other service providers, even stores and restaurants, think they only have to accommodate a certified animal. And that's just not true."
The solution, according to Track, is for landlords to work with disabled tenants on an individual basis to make sure their right to equal housing is respected. She says stratas and landlords often don't understand their duty to accommodate a disabled tenant.
"And so they think, well, we have a policy that says 'no pets' that applies to everyone and no exceptions. And they don't understand that they have to make exceptions, sometimes in order to accommodate people with disabilities," Track said.
In October 2020, Vancouver city council passed a motion to ban no-pets clauses in rental housing contracts. Now the province has to decide whether to amend the Residential Tenancy Act accordingly.
But Milton is not optimistic that a change in the law would protect tenants who have pets.
"There is inherently a power imbalance between renters and landlords and we're never going to be protected," she said.