Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Don’t call it a cat fight.

Animal-welfare advocacy groups including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the D.C.-based Humane Rescue Alliance are pushing for changes to proposed regulations that would govern pet ownership in the city’s public housing buildings. The organizations say the policy wouldn’t go far enough to benefit low-income residents, and contain “arbitrary” restrictions on pet sizes as well as on which DCHA properties pets would be allowed. Public comments on the draft rules on are open until Jan. 22.

Public housing tenants in the District who live with disabilities can currently own service animals as “reasonable accommodations,” in accordance with federal law. But for over a decade, DCHA policy has effectively banned the lion’s share of its residents from having cats, dogs, and other animals permitted under general city statutes.

“Just because you live in public housing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the same opportunities as someone living in a condo complex has” regarding pet ownership, says Scott Giacoppo, HRA’s chief community animal welfare officer. “Everyone should have the same right to share bonds with animals regardless of financial status.”

The proposed regulations come in response to ASPCA’s and HRA’s previous arguments that DCHA’s pet policy was illegal. U.S. law enacted in the 1980s maintains that “no owner or manager of any federally assisted rental housing for the elderly or handicapped may as a condition of tenancy or otherwise prohibit or prevent any tenant in such housing from owning common household pets.”

The authority now seeks to comply with these provisions. 

But as drafted, Giacoppo says, the proposed regulations would make “80 percent” of the dogs in HRA’s care impossible to adopt by a public housing resident. Although the rules don’t explicitly ban any breeds, they do restrict dog heights and weights to 15 inches and 40 pounds, respectively. “There’s no explanation for how a 15-inch size limit protects anybody’s safety, sanitary, or property interests,” Deborah Press, ASPCA’s director of regulatory affairs, argues, adding that DCHA could make some building floors or areas pet-free to accommodate tenants.

Press says many of the public housing residents her organization has met are enthusiastic about the chance to own a pet. But the proposed rules would only permit animals at DCHA sites designated for seniors and people with disabilities, or about a third of its portfolio. “That’s just going to continue to lead to the unnecessary removal and surrender of animals,” Press says. (The rules also mandate that any pets be sterilized, which HRA praises.)

In a statement, a DCHA spokeswoman notes that some tenants support restrictions on pets. “Senior apartment living lends itself to certain limitations and DCHA’s pet policy is based on our customers’ specific requests to manage the size of animals they desire in their communities,” she says. The spokeswoman adds that DCHA “takes comments into consideration before submitting its final regulation” to the authority’s board for approval, and that the next earliest board meeting would occur Feb. 8.

The regulations include limits on the number of pets elderly and disabled public housing tenants can own (a maximum of two, except for fish, caged animals, and service animals), reptiles (only turtles are allowed), and aquarium sizes (no larger than 15 gallons). Tenants would have to register their pets with property managers and would be on the hook for “services related to any pet-related property damage and/or insect infestation.” 

DCHA serves more than 50,000 residents at roughly 60 sites.