Landlords often prohibit tenants from having pets. Can they actually do that?
Renting in Toronto is already a trying experience, what with landlords charging outrageous rents for their “bright, sunny” basement apartments. But renters with furry companions face another hassle: apartment ads that boldly state “No pets,” and landlords who won’t rent to someone with a pet.
Anabela Carneiro ran into some renting roadblocks because of her cat, Oreo. She wrote to a landlord about an apartment, and the landlord wrote back with the details. “I mentioned that I had a cat,” she explains, “because it was a private landlord and I wanted to be honest, and she wrote back saying that I couldn’t view the place. She claimed there were allergies in the house.” Emily Cocarell found herself keeping mum about her dog, Pickles, when interviewing for apartments. She would mention she had a guinea pig, and if the landlord had issues with that, she wouldn’t even return her application. “But if they said that a cat or a guinea pig were okay then I didn’t mind lying to them about the dog.”
This might be a good time for a quick refresher course on tenant rights in Ontario. According to the Landlord and Tenant Board website, landlords are allowed to refuse to rent to someone with a pet. However, a “no pets” clause in a lease is void, so signing a lease that has one doesn’t give your landlord the right to kick you out if you move an animal in. Jennifer Ramsay of the Ontario Human Rights Legal Support Centre explains: “Under the Residential Tenancies Act, a landlord can’t evict you for having a pet, they just can’t.” They can evict you if your pet is causing property damage, a noise disturbance, or an allergic reaction (or if the pet is dangerous). But Ramsay says this is has nothing to do with pet ownership. “If your dog goes apeshit and tears out the wall, you’re not evicted on the basis of having a pet, but rather for interfering with others’ reasonable enjoyment of the place.”
Putting “no pets” in an ad isn’t considered discrimination, according to Ramsay, because pet ownership isn’t covered under the Human Rights Code. What is covered is disability, and renting to tenants with service animals is an area that is much more black and white. Angela Hysen, who is deaf, ran into problems when she tried to rent a place for her and her certified hearing ear dog, Magic. After Hysen had provided references and gone over the lease, the landlord backed out, saying the dog, a golden Labrador, was too large for the apartment and that potential property damage was a concern. “The landlord decided not to return my phone calls even though I was really interested in the apartment,” says Hysen.
Ramsay says Hysen’s experience is an example of an open-and-shut case of discrimination. “In the realm of human rights, not many things are much clearer than the fact that people with service animals can go wherever the hell they want.” In this case, Hysen could have called the OHRC and reported the landlord. “The first step would be to try and resolve it really quickly, usually by calling the landlord and saying, ‘You’ve got to be joking.’ Oftentimes, landlords will say, ‘All right, sorry.’ If they decide to be shirty about it, they will face an application at the tribunal, and they will lose.” There are some subtleties that may work in the landlord’s favour, such as claiming to have violent allergies, but even then a doctor’s note must be produced. “Not liking pets doesn’t count.”
Ramsay concludes that, while she doesn’t necessarily recommend sneaking in a pet, a landlord has no grounds to evict you if you do. Renters who feel they’ve been wrongfully ousted from their apartments should contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre or the Landlord and Tenant Board. Prospective tenants are probably best following the example set by Carneiro and Cocarell and just being upfront and honest. After viewing more than forty apartments in six weeks, Cocarell and her roommate were offered a place. “We knew we might lose it by confessing, but I didn’t want to lie to Robin (our super cool landlord), so we basically apologized for forgetting to tell him about Pickles, promised to fix anything she might damage, and signed the lease. We’ve been there since late September and love it.” Carneiro still thinks she should have been allowed to view that apartment. “A small cat can cause allergies through a ceiling? Give me a break. But I didn’t want to live in a house with someone like that anyways.”
With thanks to Robin Rix and Christopher Bird.