In 2013, the ASPCA and Washington Humane Society were working on a study on animal relinquishment when they noticed a trend: Housing was one of the main reasons people were giving up their pets. This led to another discovery.
“We realized that there was this very restrictive pet policy in place in D.C. public housing projects,” says ASPCA Director of Regulatory Affairs Deborah Press.
Since 2005, the D.C. Housing Authority has maintained a near-ban on pets in buildings it own and manages. Tenants with a disability who require a service animal may request a reasonable accommodation; and residents who lived in a senior-only or family building before the new regulation went into place were able to keep their pets.
But every other pet owner has since faced a difficult choice: Get rid of your pet or lose the housing. This, some advocates for pets and owners claim, is a violation of federal law as the elderly and people with disabilities have a legal right to pet ownership in public housing.
One resident of a DCHA-run building, who asked to keep his identity and place of residence anonymous, says he gave up his dog of 15 years in order to accept housing.
“I was pissed off about that,” says the resident, who moved into the building three years ago. “I was really, really pissed off.” His dog was “not vicious or nothing like that, because she was nice and trained under me,” he says.
Some pets do cause problems, the resident admits. “I don’t think they’re properly trained.” But he doesn’t understand why everyone who lives in DCHA housing should be punished for the bad behavior of a few owners.
In its argument, the ASPCA points to a section of the Housing and Urban-Rural Recovery Act of 1983, which states 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.”
In July 2015, at the request of the ASPCA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s D.C. Field Office director, Marvin Turner, sent a letter to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton stating that department had reviewed DCHA’s pet policy. The housing authority, Turner wrote, “remains responsible for compliance” with that section of the Recovery Act. “In summary HUD will work with DCHA to implement the department’s regulations governing pet policies and to ensure that the agency is in compliance,” Turner wrote.
A spokesperson for HUD said the department “is reviewing the legal opinions provided by both DCHA and ASPCA and will provide DCHA a letter with the department’s position shortly.” She was unable to specify a timeline, however.
DCHA has maintained that its pet policy is in the best interest of its tenants. DCHA Executive Director Adrianne Todman wrote in an August 2015 letter that the change to its pet policy more than a decade ago “went through a rigorous public hearing process.”
“DCHA has received overwhelming support from our resident council leaders,” Todman wrote. She added that HUD approved the DCHA Moving to Work plan—which gives public housing authorities greater discretion in spending federal funds and allows them to seek exemptions—that changed the pet policy. (Advocates believe this may have been an oversight.) In its most recent MTW, DCHA noted “cost savings with respect to the potential wear/tear of units and common areas related to the restrictions placed on pet ownership with the establishment of the agency’s pet policy.”
“DCHA has a policy that was designed with the residents of public housing, and reflects their concerns about animals at the properties,” says DCHA spokesperson Rick White. “Families that need the support of a service animal are always welcome to have one. We will continue to work with HUD and our customers on what is best for the communities we serve.”
ASPCA representatives have done a few outreach meetings to DCHA resident leaders, Press says, and were “received warmly and enthusiastically.”
“This is an issue that is really important to a lot of people who’ve had to give up pets to move into public housing or who could benefit physically or emotionally from pets,” she says. Press says these meetings “contradict” DCHA’s assertion that the current policy is popular with residents.
“No one should have to choose between their home and their pet,” Press says. “And we’re hearing from a lot of people who are being faced with that very difficult position.”
Councilmember Mary Cheh, whose office ASPCA and WHS approached with concerns about DCHA’s pet policy, says she would like to “see a tolerant, open attitude about” pets. “They have to reconsider their position,” Cheh says of DCHA. She adds that it’s preferable for DCHA to work out the issue with the ASPCA and WHS, but that a legislative fix is an option.
“If you’re living in public housing, you’re suffering economically. We shouldn’t add to the burden,” Cheh says. “It’s particularly harsh to impose these limitations.”
David Meadows, spokesperson for Councilmember Anita Bonds, whose office was likewise approached, says she “believes that [pet] ownership should be allowed in accordance with HUD guidelines and if permitted, rules that are applicable to the general population should be applied to public housing properties as well.” He added, “To my knowledge, not a single public housing resident has ever contacted the Council office or member complaining about their inability to… own a pet.”
The DCHA resident, however, says “when it comes to us, it’s a very big deal.”
He says he suffered a job-related injury and can no longer work, and now badly misses his pet. “That was like my No. 1 companion, always by my side,” he says. “Coming here, it’s taken a lot out of me, where now I just keep to myself a whole lot.”
WHS’ Scott Giacoppo says as public housing buildings close, residents who have been hiding pets are surrendering them to shelters. “Some of the cats in particular are ending up outside,” he says.
“There are already pets in housing,” Press says. “It’s just that they are unregulated, and it’s a bad situation for the pets and for the owners.”
Giacoppo says both WHS and ASPCA “want to be a partner with D.C. in making [a new pet policy] work.”
Under the Recovery Act, public housing authorities are able to impose “reasonable” regulations on pet ownership, such as requiring licensing and registration, charging a pet fee, and restricting the size or breed of the animal. Agencies may also remove pets deemed a “nuisance.”
Giacoppo says WHS offers no- or low-cost vaccination and spay-neuter services as well as other kinds of assistance. “[Public housing residents] love and want to take care of their animals just like anyone,” Giacoppo says. “Whatever the problem would be, we would help them.”
If DCHA changed its pet policy, the resident says he would “most definitely” get another dog. “It’s a great pleasure to have a companion like an animal somewhere around you,” he says.
It’s not clear exactly how many tenants a change in policy would affect. DCHA says 14 of its 52 public housing developments serve seniors and people with disabilities. Because DCHA gives preference to these two groups, the ASPCA believes the federal statute could apply to all public housing buildings.
Press says the ASPCA is not “naive” to the many challenges DCHA is facing. “We’re also sensitive to the unfairness of denying public housing residents the comfort of a pet.”
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