Diana de la Vega and her husband, Alex Nuñez, wanted to provide a “retirement home” for a senior cat. They found Lola at the SPCA.
Volunteers were in the habit of leaving Lola’s cage door open. She’ll never come out, they told the couple. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so scared,’” de la Vega recalls thinking. “And we don’t have kids or other pets. She would be queen of her castle.”
The couple brought Lola, a 12-year-old brown tabby, back to their basement suite at Villa Marco Polo Inn, where they worked as innkeepers. They expected her to hide under the bed. Instead, Lola hopped on top of it, settled into a spot that looked appealing, and then spent much of the next five years lounging there contentedly. “She smelled like fabric softener because all she did was lay on the blanket,” de la Vega said.
When the pandemic hit and people began isolating, de la Vega and her husband were thankful they had Lola. “She was great company,” de la Vega said.
But after the inn became a casualty of the pandemic, Lola became a casualty of a different kind: the housing crisis.
De la Vega and her husband found new jobs and moved to Sidney. They lived in temporary housing while searching for a place of their own to rent. They ruled out apartments without in-unit washers and dryers, as well as places with only one bedroom (which wouldn’t accommodate family members visiting from Mexico). That left them with one possibility.
And at first, it seemed like a ridiculously good one: a newly renovated condo with a view of the ocean. They thought it was beautiful. Almost perfect. But it had a no-pet policy.
De la Vega says she asked the landlord to make an exception, emphasizing Lola’s calm demeanour and age. Then 17, Lola was on the outer edge of life expectancy for an indoor cat.
But the landlord told them there was no wiggle room on the no-pets policy.
Having no other suitable housing option, the couple made the painful decision to find a new home for Lola. De la Vega posted an ad on Kijiji in the middle of the night. “And the next morning she was gone,” de la Vega said. “I cried for days.”
Like de la Vega and her husband, thousands of pet owners in BC have had to part with their animals in recent years for reasons related to housing: either they couldn’t find a place to live, or they couldn’t find a place to live that allowed pets.
A scarcity of pet-friendly housing is the main reason pet owners surrender healthy adult dogs and cats to the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, according to Sarah Herring, BC SPCA’s government relations officer.
In the last eight years, about 11,000 people have turned over their pets to the BC SPCA so they could find somewhere to live—animals that, Herring notes, “would otherwise have a very loving home and a family that cares for them.” The actual number of housing-related pet surrenders is likely even higher, as people also privately rehome pets and drop them off at other rescue organizations.
Pamela Saddler, who runs Broken Promises Rescue in Victoria, has seen an uptick in pet surrenders in the last six months. “I used to get maybe one or two a month,” Saddler said in April. “And now, I’m not kidding, I’m getting multiple a day. And there’s all sorts of reasons, but the biggest one I’m noticing is housing. People are living in their vehicles, or they have nowhere to go and they don’t know where to put their pet.”
Saddler says she’s talked to other local animal rescue operators who are seeing a similar problem: “Everybody’s getting overrun with owner surrender requests.”
Victoria’s inadequate housing supply combined with its rising rental prices means that competition for affordable rental homes is fierce.
LandlordBC doesn’t keep track of the percentage of rental stock that’s pet friendly, but animal owners know they’re at a disadvantage when looking for a place to live.
UVic student and dog owner Ariel Bolton wrote an article in March in the Martlet that described a discouraging search for housing. “As I filtered my options on Facebook to ‘Pets OK,’ I saw the number of available homes around campus go from hundreds, to just three,” Bolton wrote.
A cat owner recently told Capital Daily that when she retires next year, she’ll no longer be able to afford her rent. She’s so worried about not being able to find a place to live, she’s already started the search for her next home. Like Bolton, she has watched her options dwindle after selecting pet filters.“When I go online to look at available rentals,” she says, “90% of them won’t allow cats.”
BC Housing’s website offers eight possibilities in Victoria for seniors with pets. The soon-to-be-retired cat owner says that after expanding her search throughout the region, she qualifies for housing in four BC Housing buildings. But she says she’s been warned that the wait for a vacancy could last five years. “They’re saying everything’s going to the people who are currently living on the street, and I guess the folks who are even lower income than I will be,” she says.
Landlords reject pets for a range of reasons, including concerns over allergies, keeping common areas clean, and potential damage to rental units and property.
Hunter Boucher, LandlordBC’s vice president of operations, says that damage is the main concern, and one that is “certainly exacerbated in British Columbia with our aging rental stock.”
In older buildings, animal-related damage, such as scratched-up floors, can be “quite extensive,” he says—moreso than in housing made from newer construction materials. Pet-damage deposits in BC are capped at half a month’s rent. “While that can certainly cover minimal damage done to a unit,” Boucher says, “it does not even begin to cover some of the more extensive damage that can be done by a pet.”
Under BC’s Residential Tenancy Act, landlords can place restrictions on the breed, size, and number of animal companions of their tenants, as well as outright reject prospective tenants with pets.
“It is a right that landlords generally feel is important,” says Boucher, “to be able to have that ability to say yes or no depending upon what they feel is appropriate for their building.”
But is that a right that makes sense in a housing crisis?
“The human-animal bond is incredibly powerful,” BC SPCA’s Herring says. “If someone is forced to give up a pet in order to find housing, that can have some pretty significant emotional and mental well-being impacts.”
Not being able to part with a pet in a tight rental market can also have serious consequences. “We know through research and outreach work that women will delay or not leave domestic violence situations if they’re not able to bring an animal with them,” Herring says, “and that some people experiencing homelessness may actually turn down temporary shelter or permanent housing if they can’t bring their animal.”
When it comes to mandated pet-friendly housing in Canada, Ontario stands alone.
Legislation protecting well-behaved pets in the province dates back to 1990. Although Ontario landlords can decide not to rent to people with pets, they can’t legally evict tenants for adopting a pet after moving in or for moving in with one they didn’t know about. If a pet turns out to be a nuisance or a danger to others, or causes damage to the property, landlords do have recourse: they can make a case for eviction to the Landlord and Tenant Board.
Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act renders any no-pet clause in a rental agreement void. The provision nullifying such clauses, however, doesn’t apply to leases for renting condos, which have their own bylaws.
Unsurprisingly, the provision makes finding a home easier for pet owners in Ontario than it is for pet owners in BC.
Shannon Cameron, who grew up in Victoria and moved to the mainland as a young adult, describes the search for housing in Vancouver in the ’80s with two cats and no car as a “nightmare.” She says it took seven years for her to find a place that both felt right and accepted her cats. In the meantime, the only apartment she could find within walking distance to her job left much to be desired. “There were a lot of break-ins and things like that,” she says.
When Cameron moved to Toronto in 1999 and began searching for housing, “It was a breath of fresh air,” she says.
In 2019, when she moved back to the Island with a 55-pound dog, she was dismayed to find landlords still discriminating against pet owners. With no luck finding a rental in Victoria, she ended up buying a condo in Colwood.
Cameron says she’d like to see pet-friendly legislation in BC modelled after Ontario’s. That it doesn’t exist is a “pet peeve,” she says.
If Ontario is any indication, BC landlords’ concerns about mandated pet-friendly housing may be overblown. For three decades, such legislation largely has worked out well for both tenants and landlords in Ontario.
Although the Ontario Landlords Association occasionally hears from members that noisy dogs have caused other tenants to move out, or that pet snakes have worried parents of toddlers, or that carpets have been damaged by cat urine, the association takes no issue with the legal provision that makes no-pet clauses unenforceable.
“Many of our members used to rent and had pets, so pet damages are their only worry and a pet deposit would quash any concerns over damages,” Amy Wong, a volunteer with the Ontario Landlords Association, said in an email. “We have asked for this in Ontario but don’t have it. If BC has a pet deposit, they shouldn’t have any major concerns in most cases.”
Yet, such pet-friendly housing legislation has remained elusive in BC, despite repeated pushes from advocacy groups for changes to the Residential Tenancy Act.
In 2000, a bill to eliminate blanket no-pet policies in BC leases fizzled after a first reading. In 2015, an advocacy group called Pets OK BC created an online petition, hoping to end pet discrimination in housing.
Attempts at such legislation have hit roadblocks elsewhere in Canada too. A bill modelled after Ontario’s failed to gain traction in Manitoba in 2010. In Prince Edward Island, proposed legislation that would have given tenants the right to have pets in rental properties didn’t have the votes to pass last year. And last summer in Québec, a member of Québec solidaire tabled a petition with 33,000 signatures calling to end no-pet clauses, but after an election was called and the national assembly dissolved, a vote on the content of the petition could no longer be forced.
Québec solidaire isn’t giving up. In Montreal, nearly one animal is abandoned each day at the SPCA due to its owners moving. “It’s unacceptable that thousands of Quebecers must resort to this when the solution is so simple,” Andrés Fontecilla, MNA for Laurier-Dorion, said in a recent statement released by SPCA Montreal.
That solution, according to Fontecilla, is to ban pet restrictions in rentals. “France did it in the ’70s and Ontario in the ’90s,” he said in the statement. “It doesn’t cost the government anything. It’s just common sense.”
On May 25, Fontecilla introduced a bill to amend Québec’s civil code to prohibit no-pet clauses in leases. Québec solidaire press secretary Sandrine Bourque says the bill is unlikely to be considered without public pressure.
The last big push for pet-friendly housing in BC was in 2018. At that point, the Residential Tenancy Act hadn’t undergone a comprehensive review in 16 years. Then-premier John Horgan thought one was overdue and appointed a three-member Residential Housing Task Force to advise him on how to “improve security and fairness” for tenants and landlords.
The BC SPCA called for changes modelled after Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act, as did Pets OK BC, which collected more than 70,000 signatures on a petition to eliminate no-pet policies.
In a report detailing its findings and recommendations, the task force acknowledged that it had received a “high number of pet-related comments” during its online dialogue period—more than twice as many comments as the second most popular issue (affordability)—but dismissed what it called “the anomaly” as an organized advocacy campaign.
The report also described pushback from landlords: “Some housing providers indicated that they would rather remove homes from the rental market than be forced to allow people with pets to rent their properties.”
The spectre of landlords making good on that threat killed any appetite officials might have had for provincially mandated pet-friendly housing.
And it’s still front of mind.
At the UBCM Housing Summit in April, Premier David Eby referenced the task force after being asked for his thoughts on the dearth of pet-friendly housing during a Q&A with delegates. “One of the pieces of feedback they got from a number of people who are landlords was—especially private landlords that have secondary suites in a home—if the province required them to have somebody with a dog or with a cat, with a pet, they would take their housing unit off the market.”
With about zero per cent vacancy rates in most parts of the province, he said, “We are not in a position where we can afford to lose rental housing right now.”
As a result, the BC SPCA is taking a different tack. “Some of the most vulnerable people are the ones that rely on their animals the most and that are the most at risk of losing them due to a lack of housing,” says Herring. “So we want to work with non-profit housing providers to find out what their barriers and challenges are for allowing pets and then see if there are any resources or supports that the BC SPCA can provide to make that easier.”
That could mean making collars or leashes available, offering training on animal care, or connecting tenants to pet-food banks or emergency boarding for their pets, so the housing staff wouldn’t have to step in to care for a pet if the owner is hospitalized. “And then in the future, we would love to expand that and collaborate with market rent landlords,” Herring says.
In the meantime, pet owners in BC continue to be forced into heartbreaking choices between keeping their pets or having a place to live.
It’s a choice that still pains de la Vega. “We miss her a lot,” she says of Lola.
In the last seven months, de la Vega has received periodic photos and updates from Lola’s new owner. Lola appears to have adapted well to her new home on Mayne Island, where she has a second cat for company.
But de la Vega is still haunted by their goodbye. “She looked at us with terror in her eyes,” she says. “And I can never get that image out of my head.”