It’s a Dog Evicts Dog Province

At $995 a month, Cynthia Summery and her Chihuahuas Elvis, Dude, and Guinness happily live in a spacious 5 ½ duplex with a backyard, in a 1920s style complex with Italianate features. Caught in a no-man’s land in between Notre-Dame-de-Grace and Westmount, Prud’Homme Avenue exists a little borough of its own.  In 2014, Summery received a letter from Leonard Walter, her landlord, threatening to file an eviction with the Regie Du Logement unless she removed the dogs from her home. At the time, Summery was fostering 3 rescue Chihuahuas in addition to her own brood, a total of 6 petite Chihuahuas. Summery explains her outrage at Walter’s actions, “I’d been there for 9 years, I cut everyone’s grass, my son-in-law did painting for you under the table, all kinds of stuff and all of a sudden you turn on me like this?” Under Quebec law, the eviction is legal as Summery violated the no-pet clause in her lease.

This clause allows landlords to discriminate against renters with pets, according to Summery, and evict tenants who violate the rental contract by bringing animals into the residence. On paper, it’s a clear-cut rule that fairly protects landlords from irresponsible tenants. However, legal complications can arise when the purpose of contracts – risk management against human unpredictability – is overlooked and verbal agreements are made.

In accordance to the residential 1-pet policy, in 2008, Summery’s daughter brings a Chihuahua to live in the residence. In the following years, the Chihuahua dies, prompting Summery to adopt three Chihuahuas of her own. Montreal by-laws allow a maximum total of four dogs in a residence. “The landlord knew about it,” she recalls. “He’s the kind of landlord that is always in your business, always in your backyard, always showing up at your front door, he’s always there.” That was Walter’s nature – to some a dedicated landlord but to Summery, an overbearing one. When the Summery home needed maintenance, Walter came into the home frequently to make repairs and interacted positively with the dogs.

In 2013, Summery’s brood reached a number of six Chihuahuas.  “He said ‘there’s a lot of dogs,’ but they’re separated, it’s not like they were running around the house making a mess, you could eat off my floors!” Summery defended, with photos of the property. Walter sent Summery a letter threatening to send a formal eviction letter. In the letter he demanded that all the Chihuahuas be removed, even the three original ones, or else he would call the authorities to remove the animals for sanitary reasons. “I lost 50 pounds, lots of sleep, I was worried sick,” said Summery, who believes Walter had ulterior motives for invoking the no-pet clause eight years later. While the no-pet clause gives landlords the power to legally evict tenants, there is no guarantee as to when the landlord will choose to invoke the clause, or if they ever will. “Walter found out the person across the street had upped the rent $500 dollars,” Summery says, “then all of a sudden he wanted the dogs that didn’t belong to me gone, my own animals gone, and by extension me.” Summery did not want to lose her own pets, so she abolished her lease and moved.

“I don’t know,” said Walter amicably, when asked if he did the morally correct thing. “I didn’t [technically] evict her, all I wanted was for her to reduce the number of dogs and she decided to leave.” Walter said that Summery was a good tenant, but there were many noise complaints from her about other neighbours. He stated that the six canines were a surprise, and that the rent rose from $995 a month to $1200 because of renovations done to the 5 ½. Walter claimed that Summery’s Chihuahuas caused damage to a bathroom and the electrical wiring in the house, all of which she denied. While to some, the situation may appear to be a mundane battle of he-said-she-said, Cynthia Summery’s situation is a recurring pattern in Quebec, that can happen to anyone with a pet.

In the Mile-end, an epicenter of Montreal’s gentrifying trend, Ann-Marie Cote and her French Bulldog, Bullet, face eviction despite Cote having lived in the large 3 ½ for seven years at a fixed rent of $600 dollars. Cote previously owned a Pug that died of old age, and Bullet has lived at the residence for 2 and a half years – like the Pug before him – as the only dog ‘allowed’ in the building. Cote is home often and claims that the complaints of barking are dishonest, and that even if they aren’t, Bullet is not as loud as the other tenants. In her short absences, as an alibi, she records her apartment with Bullet alone to disprove the accusations. Cote was served a court date, and while unsure of her legal rights she was ready to dispute the case. Ultimately the landlord threw out the case, and Cote refuses to explain why, as she does not want to reinitiate conflicts with her landlord. If the case had gone to trial she would have lost.

A legally established pet clause gives absolute power to landlord testimonials, and does not give tenants the opportunity to legally contest the clause in any way, even with living precedents and oral agreements. Given the Régie du Logement’s strong abidance to legal documentation and landlord’s contractual freedom, tenants continue to lose court battles. The only exceptions to the clause as recognized by the courts and successful court battles are those pertaining to therapy animals.

There is confusion as to whether or not the dispute can be successfully challenged, and for tenants this results in an expensive lost cause. According to a large poll study conducted in 2015 by the Corporation des Propriétaires Immobiliers du Québec, the Régie is overwhelmed by no-pet clause court cases. The Régie court receives 72,000 requests annually, and 9 out of ten legal requests come from pet owning tenants contesting decisions. Amounting to a grand total of 37,000 annual pet-clause cases, these take up Régie resources and hearings may be delayed as long as 15 months. Specifically, 67 per cent of these cases are from tenants who owned an animal that was legally banned from the beginning of the lease. The study states that this high influx of legal requests and hearings is due to the Régie’s past decisions causing confusion, and that more should be done to clarify them.

Jaime Robinson, a representative at the Concordia Housing and Jobs Office, runs a legal clinic and knows all too well the tenant-landlord confusion.  In Ontario, the legal jurisdiction is based on Civil Law code, since 2006 Ontario no-pet clauses have been repealed. Quebec’s legal system is based on Common Law.

“A lot of animal rights advocates and people who would like the Quebec law to change are misinforming tenants about the reality of it,” says Jaime, “some online resources that are telling tenants they can fight Régie decisions based on Ontario laws or past Régie decisions.” Jaime further explains, “In June of 2015, a tenant was living in an apartment with his dog and the Régie approved the landlord’s motion for eviction. The person contested that, because he’s an older gentleman with terminal cancer and his doctor was willing to testify that this dog was important for his mental health. The Régie did overturn that decision and defended his right to keep his dog, some people interpreted this decision as the Régie now allowing animals.” Contrastingly, in 2011 the Régie approved an eviction for a family with a therapy dog for their child with autism. The Régie stood by this decision and stated the involved therapist and their testimonial was not convincing, as the therapist was not an expert on zootherapy and could not prove that the absence of the animal would be a hinderance to the child.

In Summery’s case, “whether or not she had 1 animal shouldn’t grandfather or set a precedent that the landlord was not against animals,” says Jaime. “Imagine a type of legislation framed to say if your dog has been living there for a certain amount of years, and therefore it can remain there, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense, possibly it would encourage landlords to be more vigilant about pets.”

In Clara’s case, “in terms of landlords removing people to increase the rent it’s definitely a concern, particularly for gentrifying neighborhoods,” reflects Jaime. “Landlords will use whatever mechanisms are available to them, if it’s a not pet-clause they will for sure use that.”

To combat gentrification Jaime advises that tenants choosing to leave due to the clause should instead transfer the lease to someone without a pet, as this bars the landlord from increasing the rent. Additionally, a tenant has the right to request information on the highest rent paid in the last 12 months. Tenants can contest their rent if it is considerably higher than that of past tenants, as landlords cannot increase rent as they choose. The heart of the matter lies in the assumptions that the no-pet clause is rooted in, which animal rights activists call unjust. “It’s very unfortunate that landlords are able to take advantage of these no pet clauses and it’s essentially being used too commonly,” says Anita Kapuscinska, Media Relations Coordinator for the Montreal SPCA, “people will receive clause exemptions and then one day, when you need a repair in your apartment unrelated to your pet, landlords often say ‘we let you keep your pet so deal with it.’”

The Société pour la protection des animaux of Montreal is a leading voice in the fight against no-pet clauses and an advocate for the overall improvement of the conditions of animals in Québec. “Québec is considered to be the worst province when it comes to the way animals are cared for and they ways they are protected,” says Anita, “the recent Bill 54 is a huge step forward, for Canada and particularly Québec.” Anita talks about Bill 54, a recent civil code amendment that explicitly recognizes domestic animals as sentient beings with biological needs that must be met. The bill has created a more rigorous protocol for pet stores in addition to costly monetary fines for animal cruelty and now, jail time for repeating offenders. Most importantly, the bill now penalizes animal abandonment, consequently encouraging animals to be safely surrendered to the Montreal SPCA and other organizations.

The Montreal SPCA has a campaign called Keeping Families Together – the SPCA states that no-pet clauses are a leading cause in pet-abandonment and the issue is aggravated by Moving day, an annual Québec trend on July 1st when Montrealers relocate to new residences in large numbers.  During the summer, starting in mid-May, the number of animals coming into the Montreal SPCA shoots up from around 600 to 1,600 animals per month – three times the number of abandoned animals surrendered during any other season. The Montreal SPCA believes that no-pet clauses are discriminatory and severely impact low-income families who cannot find affordable housing that will accept their family pets. Last year, the campaign launched a provincial petition and captured over 22,000 signatures and presented it at the national assembly to the Prime Minister of Agriculture. The petition, however, was rejected.

“I’ve been at the Spca for over 8 years and every year, I see people crying at reception with their animals, people coming in with their kids who are in tears,” shares Anita. “People often assume these are people who don’t care about their animals and are throwing them out like garbage. There are some who do that, but the majority of these people, are people who do not want to give up their pets.” It’s one of the arguments for pet-clauses that circulates in Québec’s double-sworded pet culture and property-rental industry, and consequently people often don’t come forward to speak about surrendering their pets because of the shame involved.

Though biased, the study conducted by the Corporation Des Propriétaires Immobiliers du Québec reflects the sentiment that no-pet clauses are not the main cause of pet abandonment but rather irresponsible owners, and that Bill 54 was created for this reason. Anita finds the belief to be misplaced, and asks, “Where is the real problem? Is it people having pets or making sure that people are more responsible in general?” As it legally stands currently, with or without pet clauses, a tenant who resides in a rental property is legally obligated to keep the dwelling in a good and clean condition. Upon termination of the rental contract, the tenant must leave the property in the condition it was given in and the landlord can pursue legal action for damage compensation. “We hear all these different reasons why landlords believe it’s their right, but at the same time why are we discriminating against pets? Are we going to start telling people how to live in their own homes?” says Anita. “It’s really entering someone’s personal life and telling them how they should live and we don’t believe this is right.” The Montreal SPCA will continue to push for the end of no-pet clauses, finding solace and inspiration in the province of Ontario and the countries of France and Belgium, who once faced the same problems currently plaguing Québec.