by David Stunja
The antiquated pet policies of previous decades can be forgiven. After all, apartment operators didn’t always have a bevy of data at their fingertips to help steer them toward more intuitive property procedures.
But that’s no longer an excuse, as newfound pet data has made a compelling case for operators to overhaul their outdated, antediluvian policies in favor of much more pet-friendly measures.
Various operators at the Talk Data to Me: Pet Research to Improve NOI session at Apartmentalize 2021 discussed ways they’ve leveraged pet data to create the most pet-friendly, pet-responsible experience at their communities. Moderator John Bradford, founder and chief executive officer of PetScreening, relayed an abundance of pet metrics that underscored the reasons why it makes sense for operators to modernize their policies.
For instance, the Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative report by Michelson Found Animals and the Human Animal Bond Research Institute indicates that residents stay 21% longer in pet-friendly housing. Additionally, 83% of apartment owners say pet-friendly vacancies fill faster.
“When we see data like this, it’s our residents guiding us toward what to do,” said Angie Lombardi, vice president of marketing for The Franklin Johnston Group.
The data also shows that pet ownership isn’t going to taper anytime soon. According to the Multifamily Pet Policies and Amenities Survey released earlier this year by PetScreening and J. Turner Research, 26% of residents said they acquired a pet during the pandemic and 19% of non-pet owning residents planned to get one in 2021.
As pet ownership continues to increase, many communities are loosening the reins on weight and breed restrictions while increasing the number of pets permitted in a home. Some have been hesitant to ease these restrictions in favor of screening and evaluating pets and pet owners on an individual basis for one reason—potential backlash from residents. But the actual percentage of residents that are pro-restriction is actually small, as only 20% support weight restrictions and 23% support breed restrictions.
“I’m working diligently to chip away and try and eliminate those restrictions,” said Lombardi, noting The Franklin Johnston Group works with multiple ownership groups, so it’s more of an individual process than a full sweep. “I definitely think it is beneficial to the property and to the animal.”
Perhaps the most notable example of modern pet processes is The Management Group (TMG), an Atlanta-based operator that has beefed up its pet-friendliness across the board, including the elimination of breed and weight restrictions, a heavy concentration on improving pet amenity spaces and the use of a third-party service to handle the upfront portions of the pet process, including accommodation animal requests. After instituting the changes, TMG experienced an outstanding 80% renewal rate among pet-owning residents and decided to completely eliminate pet fees.
“Instead of that $10, $20 or $30 a month, we’ll gladly take a renewal,” said Jamin Harkness, executive vice president of The Management Group. “We don’t want the vacancy loss or to have to turn an apartment—and we really stand out among our competitors.”
Some have been hesitant to broaden their pet amenity offerings because of the perceived cost, but data indicates the most sought-after pet amenities aren’t those of the ultra-expensive variety. When asked to rate their top three preferred pet amenities, residents chose pet waste stations, a pet park and outdoor dog run, according to the PetScreening/J Turner Research report.
Granted, more pets means a greater chance for pet waste, barking and off-leash offenses, which are the three most cited complaints among non-pet owners. Property teams have historically been hesitant to fine frequent offenders for fear of backlash, but the report indicates that residents largely support this model. All residents—pet owning or otherwise—were asked the question and only 14% were against charging higher fees for irresponsible pet ownership (71% were for it and 15% were indifferent).
Another challenge for community teams is unauthorized pets, but steps can be taken to alleviate that issue, as well. Whether it’s by way of simply sneaking a pet into the community without reporting it or by way of insufficient accommodation animal requests, unauthorized pets make their way into communities. This leads to a loss of rightful pet revenue for many operators and creates liability risks.
The panel imparted several ways to conquer this problem, including periodic pet audits, the idea of including statutes for visiting pets in the pet policy and to outsource efforts to verify accommodation animal requests, such as service and animals and emotional support animals.
“We all know you go online and purchase animal documentation letters for $90—we see them all the time and it’s very easy to fake,” said Peter Cowan, director of ancillary revenue for Bridge Property Management. “Leasing agents are leasing agents—they’re not attorneys. So how are they supposed to differentiate a fake HUD letter from a real accommodation request?”
As such, Bridge outsources its efforts and relies on screening and assistance animal review-service professionals to verify whether the request is valid.
“It takes the onus off of our leasing agents to make that decision, and it’s really been helpful for us,” Cowan said. “In some cases, it turns what would have been insufficient accommodation animals into actual revenue-earning pets.”