Taking the lead

Is it up to housing associations to tell tenants how to live their lives when it comes to pets, or should they be more tolerant of people’s choices? Rebecca McAdam meets a housing association going all out to help tenants live the life they want.

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What makes a house a home? For some people home means a bustling house full of children, for others it’s living a zen-like tranquil lifestyle. But for nearly half of the population it’s a pet that turns the place we live into the place we love.

Some associations have a strict ‘no pets’ policy, leaving tenants with a difficult decision; abide by the ‘rules’ and rehome their pets, continue the search for pet-friendly accommodation, or keep their pets hidden away from sight of housing officers.

I travelled to Swansea to meet Serena Jones, director of homes, communities and services at Coastal Housing, to find out how they are taking a different approach to accommodating their tenants’ lifestyle choices.

We were joined by one of the cutest dogs I have ever seen. Arthur – a tiny five-month old Pomeranian – and his owner, Chris Norman, a tenant in one of Coastal’s city centre apartments.

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Serena started the interview by explaining how the association’s pet policy standpoint has changed: “The rule used to be that if your front door opened onto a garden then you could have a dog or cat. We did a review and found that people were asking us if we could help rehome their pet and I felt that this was harsh.

“You’re asking someone to get rid of a family member.

“So I removed the front door ruling and instead we just ask ‘in this kind of property how would you manage this pet?’ There might be some properties for which pets aren’t suitable but we don’t want to apply that as a rule. I think the fact we are setting a tone – just having an adult to adult conversation about animal care just feels right.”

In the UK there are an astounding 51 million pets, the majority of which are cats and dogs. Chances are, nearly half the tenants in social housing have or will have a pet at some point.

Does imposing hard and fast rules over this emotive issue help or hinder both tenants and associations?

“All that happens is that tenants feel they have to lie to us because pets are really important to people.

“My worry is if we put hard and fast rules that people won’t follow, they’ll then start to not report repairs, because they might be worried we would come round and find their pet. They wouldn’t feel like they were able to engage with us.

“Pets are part of the family. We don’t want to create a situation where people think they have to hide things, we want an honest dialogue with tenants,” said Serena.

Of course, there are the obvious practicalities to consider, such as the suitability of an animal’s size in what may be a modest property.

Serena laughs as she explains, “Are we going to let a donkey in a property – probably not! We just try to be sensible about having a discussion with the tenants.”

“They are adults, we are adults, we want to have a conversation about how will you be able to take care of this pet, how will you deal with the toileting needs, how are you able to take care of the medical or health needs. There are no hard and fast limits.”

At this point, Arthur jumps down from Chris’ lap and starts exploring the meeting room. The interview is put on hold for a few minutes while we take it in turns to have doggy cuddles and tell him what a good boy he is (Arthur that is, but Chris was well behaved too!).

I notice everyone in the room is smiling.

Chris grew up with dogs in his family but never had one of his own. “I think growing up it’s hugely important to have a family pet. I think it’s a different type of love. It’s nice to run home to Arthur. I am so excited to get in and see him,” enthuses Chris.

Changing company policy is often thought of as a big issue, but Serena explains how it doesn’t necessarily lead to an increased workload: “I think there is a lot of anxiety that it will create a lot of extra work, or they’ll be lots of problems – neighbour disputes, noise, mess etc. The reality is there is noise and mess already. It’s not unusual.

“HAs can sometimes get locked into that place of control rather than a place of freedom and it can be quite a big step for some organisations to take.

“I think they need to consider there’s some reflections to have on power – HAs trying to regain power over tenants and their lives. I think we should all be reflecting on how we should better distribute that power.

“People have autonomy and we should be encouraging that, not trying to be paternalistic and decide how people should live their lives – that’s not for us to comment on.

“I think it’s important for us to be trying to create level playing fields between us and our tenants, trying to create a sense of equality to get the kind of communities we all want to live in – not ‘we think it should be like this and you’ll do as we say’. It’s not up to us to decide how people live. It’s up to us to ensure tenancy conditions are adhered to but that can sometimes get overloaded with a set of additional rules, which if they were challenged I suspect wouldn’t really stand up .

“I’m not really sure you can say to people you can’t have a pet. Obviously if you sign a contract and it says no pets then you’ve got a contractual condition. Whether or not you agree to let tenants have pets they will do it. It’s just an illusion of power.

“It’s not about us, we are providing a home – providing the infrastructure and trying to help with a sense of community, but it’s for the community to decide how they want to live their lives, if they want to come together or not come together – it’s not ours to impose. We should reflect on how we use the power that we have – do we use it for good or do we not?”

Tenants’ feedback shows how appreciative they are of the flexibility of the arrangement, with many sending pictures of their pets, creating a friendly, informal relationship with the association.

Serena explains how home life is so important to people’s happiness, saying “pets can make a massive difference. Exercise, getting out and about, meeting people. Pets are a great conversation starter. If you’re talking about issues such as how do we combat isolation, pets feel like one way it would work.”

Chris agrees: “It’s great companionship and I think that with a pet it’s such an important part of life, especially if you live alone. You’ve got that little companion to run home to from work and take it for walks, meet other people. It’s generally good for your health as well.

“When I got Arthur I was thinking that we may have to move, but I loved him so much after a week that I think I would have moved anywhere just to keep him with me.

“I love where I live. I’m so glad it didn’t come to that. He’s been a perfect little addition.”

I squeeze in one last ‘Arthur cuddle’ and leave the building pondering how pet-owning tenants would ever be able to give up their beloved companions.

Faced with a choice of a roof over your head or keeping your pet, which would you choose?

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