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Must landlords accommodate allergic residents in pet-friendly properties?

Resident Retention

Landlords typically have very mixed opinions about whether to allow tenants to have pets in their rental units. There are some good reasons for designating pet-friendly housing: It allows a broader pool of rental applicants and may result in lower tenant turnover; and tenants may be willing to pay more if they can bring Fido along. There are also really good reasons why some landlords refuse to allow pets: It can cause more wear and tear to the units, insurance premiums usually go up, and unruly animals can be a nuisance for other residents.

The decision to allow pets is really a personal one for property owners to consider.

When Pets Become a Nuisance to Other Residents

Let’s pick up on that last point—pets being a nuisance to other residents. There was recently an article in the New York Times in which a resident was explaining her dilemma. She lives in pet-friendly housing, but she’s allergic to animals. It’s causing her a big problem. In her own words:

I live in a pet-friendly co-op in Riverdale, in the Bronx. Unfortunately, I am highly allergic to dogs and cats. When pet owners wash their pets’ clothes and bedding in the common laundry room, some of them do not clean out the hair from the lint catchers in the dryers, leaving me to clean it out. This has triggered several allergic reactions. When I asked the board to set aside specific washers and dryers for the pet paraphernalia, it refused, saying pet owners should have unlimited access to all machines.

This raises the question, are landlords (and HOA or condo associations) obligated to cater to allergic residents if the building is designated as pet-friendly housing?

The short answer is no. If the building is designated as pet-friendly housing, there is no legal reason for landlords, property managers, or associations to go out of their way to accommodate residents who are allergic to animals. The situation would be different if a pet were causing a disturbance in violation of other rules and regulations, such as a dog that barks at all hours of the night or who soils the common area’s carpet. In cases like these, landlords and property managers could certainly fine the pet owner.

However, if pets are doing nothing “wrong” other than just being pets—which includes shedding and dander—then there’s no obligation to respond to allergic residents living in pet-friendly housing.

How to Accommodate Tenants With Allergies

That being said, there is certainly a case to be made as to why a landlord should be responsive to allergic tenants’ needs. A few low-cost interventions can go a long way to accommodate allergic residents living in pet-friendly housing—steps that could ultimately keep all of your residents happy. Happy tenants = good tenants.

In the example above, the co-op board refused to set aside specific washers and dryers for pet owners to use. The board argued that pet owners should have unlimited access to all washers and dryers. A different course of action would be to keep all of the existing washers and dryers, and then add a single set (or two, depending on the size of the apartment building) that is branded along the lines of an “allergy sensitive” set of machines. A simple sign hanging overhead could explain why property management is requesting that those machines only be used by residents without pets.

This approach doesn’t take away from the services provided to pet owners, but instead adds a service for those who are allergic. Perhaps these “allergy-sensitive” machines are a bit more expensive to use, a premium that those who are truly allergic to animals will be happy to pay.

Landlords can also be responsive to allergic residents by doing a deep clean of the unit when an existing pet owner moves out. Pet fur, particularly from large dogs, can get into the ductwork, which can create problems for future tenants who are allergic to animals. Similarly, having the carpets thoroughly washed can remove traces of dander better than a traditional vacuum would. A quick scan using a blacklight will reveal any hidden stains left behind by a previous tenant’s furry friends. Property owners may want to consider installing laminate, vinyl, hardwood, or tile flooring to make cleaning easier.

A deep clean of the building’s common areas is a wise thing for landlords and property managers to do on an annual basis. Another strategy would be for property managers to designate a portion of their units as pet-friendly housing (perhaps even the bulk of units) and set aside a few “allergy-sensitive” units for prospective tenants who would be a great fit for the apartment complex, aside from their allergies.

Of course, the best way to prevent complains from allergic residents is to make it abundantly clear within your lease that the building is pet-friendly housing. Pet hair and dander can be difficult to remove, and remnants of hair and dander can linger long after a pet owner moves out, in spite of proactive steps taken by a well-intentioned landlord or property manager. Even slight indoor allergies can be activated by fur and dander that can’t be seen with the naked eye—especially it’s gotten into the ductwork.

Property owners should be completely transparent with prospective tenants. If anyone suggests that he or she is highly allergic to animals, they might not be a good fit for pet-friendly housing. At a bare minimum, prospective residents with severe pet allergies should be warned to proceed with caution. In the short run, it might mean losing a prospective tenant—but this can save landlords, property managers, and allergic tenants a lot of trouble down the line. And for every prospective tenant that is highly allergic to animals, there will be another pet-loving prospect eager to sign on the dotted line.

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Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher is a self-proclaimed policy wonk who dabbles in real estate law. Amanda holds a B.S. in Political Science and Sociology from Boston University, as well as a Masters in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern.