Rolling Out the Welcome Mat: Rethinking Pet-Related Restrictions

    Like in many facets of the apartment world, operators often continue to utilize the pet policies of the past because that’s the way the industry has always done things.

    But our somewhat previously tech-averse industry has become so much more innovative over these past two years. We’ve discovered new efficiencies to assist with leasing, marketing and maintenance—which means it’s also time for operators to craft pet policies to match the needs of the modern renter, too. Thanks to a blend of research, tech and successful policy overhauls by numerous operators, this is now an attainable objective.

    As a panel recently discussed in the National Apartment Association webinar Rolling Out the Welcome Mat: Rethinking Pet-Related Restrictions, forward-thinking pet policies are more important than ever considering the pronounced rise in pet ownership over the past decade, particularly the past two years.

    According to a study by PetScreening and J Turner Research, 26% of apartment residents who have a pet acquired it after the start of the pandemic—some first-time pet owners and others that added additional pets.  And the rate of pet and animal ownership in the country now sits at or near 70% of households.

    “It was a wonderful unintended consequence of COVID that all of these animals that were in shelters and rescues now have a home,” said John Bradford, founder and CEO of PetScreening. “But it also creates a new challenge, because now multifamily operators across the country might not know where all these pets are within their communities.”

    According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $103 billion on their pets in 2021, which underscores the rising level of dedication for people’s furry friends. Additionally, 46% of pet owners fall into the millennial and Gen Z demographics, meaning a significant chunk of today’s key renter base accounts for nearly half of the country’s pet ownership. By contrast, it’s been reported that only 27% of homes have children.

    So how can the apartment industry adjust? By rethinking antiquated policies such as breed and weight restrictions in favor of more innovative ways of evaluating pets. By increasing their focus on pet amenities—especially simple ones, such as shaded pet parks—and services. And by partnering with local pet groups, such as pet groomers, dog walkers and rescue groups, to give pet-owning residents more ways to care for their companions and to help other residents have opportunities to bring pets into their lives as well.

    Part of the quest to ease restrictions is to debunk many longstanding myths, according to Judy Bellack, industry principal for Michelson Found Animals.

    “When we look at the history of breed restrictions, it all started decades ago with the CDC’s dangerous breed list,” Bellack said. “But the CDC has since completely reversed on that and acknowledged that the dataset was really, really flawed, because it was only based upon certain types of dog bites. Not only have they reversed themselves, they’ve come out to say that they really don’t believe there are such things as dangerous breeds. Dangerous dogs and poor pet owners, yes, but not breeds.”

    Bellack notes that another common industry misconception is that most insurance companies incorporate a breed restriction component into their policies. That is false, as most do not.

    Once apartment operators can independently dispel these myths, they can make the decision to revamp their policies that can, at once, cater to the ever-increasing pet owner demographic and serve as a revenue driver. One way to drive revenue, naturally, is by opening doors to a wider pool of potential residents. Reducing restrictions makes that happen.

    Industry experts caution that refurbishing pet policies should not be done without a measured approach. Leaning on tech to help track pet populations, evaluate pet and owner history and outsource assistance animal accommodation requests is recommended. But done responsibly, modernizing pet policies can carry a surplus of benefits.

    Thankfully, the industry has a growing number of success stories to point to. Pegasus Residential, for instance, does not feature breed and weight restrictions, screens all pets to mitigate risks and prominently features pet-inclusivity in its marketing materials. As such, the Alpharetta, Ga.-based operator has experienced heightened levels of resident satisfaction and boosted renewal rates.

    “We’ve been very into pet rescues at our organization, so many of the pets that I know about inside of Pegasus are rescues,” said Wendy Dorchester, senior vice president of operations for Pegasus Residential. “That includes our mascot, Mia, who was left behind at an apartment community. We’ve given a lot over the years to organizations such as the ASPCA, for whom we helped raise over $40,000 just a few years ago as part of our yearly philanthropy.”

    Pegasus also has donated to Angels Among Us and additional pet-related philanthropies. The organization also regularly hosts pet adoption events and sometimes factors in leasing incentives for those who adopt.

    Dorchester also debunked another industry myth that larger breeds cause more damage than smaller breeds. A Great Dane owner herself, she discovered that data from her communities (and elsewhere) didn’t support this notion, which made size restrictions something of an irrelevant concept. Great Danes for instance, are fantastic apartment dwellers.

    “What we found is that resident satisfaction levels are off the charts,” she said of the primary takeaway from Pegasus’ pet-friendly initiatives.  

    Oculus Realty, a Washington, D.C.-area apartment operator, also shed breed and weight restrictions and has experienced a vast uptick in the connections residents feel with each other and their properties. According to K. David Meit. CPM®, principal of Oculus Realty, the company’s communities now boast a competitive advantage in their respective markets due to their heightened levels of pet-friendliness.

    “The company I wanted to have is one that’s pet-friendly; I want to have all these pets in my buildings,” Meit said. “And by the way, there’s a huge benefit for me as an operator. Before we eliminated breed and weight restrictions a few years ago, we did the research. And the minute we made this decision, it opened our portfolio up to all sorts of community connectivity that we hadn’t built before because we weren’t being pet-centric.”

    To ensure accountability remains in place, Oculus adopted measures such as a pet DNA service to discourage unattended pet waste. Meit also discovered that responsible pet owners also often equate to responsible residents, so the influx of pet owners at Oculus communities has resulted in a downtick of delinquency and evictions.

    As a whole, the industry has been somewhat slow to overhaul its longstanding pet policies in favor of a more modern approach. It has utilized outdated, and no longer existing breed prohibition lists from government entities and insurance companies. But now the industry has a handful of pet policy success stories to lean on that are setting the pace for operators to adjust and embrace the idea of a new set of policies along with a new level of community and inclusiveness and a new level of pet revenue, too.