Australia is a nation of pet owners. Yet as the popularity of apartment living grows, this culture is increasingly at risk from strata regulations that restrict the keeping of animals. Are these laws out of touch?
NSW Fair Trading has released a review of strata regulation. Key changes include a review of model by-laws relating to pet ownership. The proposed by-laws will make it easier for residents to keep pets in a strata scheme, such as an apartment or townhouse.
Modifications to retained by-laws are also proposed. For example, a current clause allowing small dogs requires that people “carry the animal when it is on the common property”. The review proposes replacing this with one that doesn’t mention size and requires that owners “supervise the animal when it is on common property”.
The proposed changes are to the model by-laws. Strata communities will still retain the right to adopt by-laws that suit their particular context, including restricting pets.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that animals are banned from the majority of strata schemes, especially apartment buildings. However, the market appears to be undergoing change.
Growing numbers of pet-friendly apartments are going on sale. It is now not uncommon to see advertisements for apartments that include a picture of a fluffy dog. For developers, pet-friendly status is often part of the sales strategy and is believed to broaden market appeal.
Growing support for pet keeping in strata communities reflects the cultural importance of pet ownership in Australia. More than 60% of Australian households include at least one companion animal, with dogs and cats most common. These animals are more than just “pets”: 88% of households see them as family members.
Restrictive policies on pets are a real barrier to apartment living. Such rules can force people to consider relinquishing their pets, which can result in euthanasia and be devastating for the owner. Restrictive by-laws also drastically reduce the available market for people trying to sell an apartment.
Pets can be an asset to the whole community. More than just supporting good physical health and wellbeing and acting as a buffer against loneliness, pets have a “ripple effect” on interactions within neighbourhoods; they help to create a sense of community.
My research with dog owners in apartments across Sydney shows this. People I spoke with described having more social interactions with their neighbours after they got a dog. Dogs made people recognisable to their neighbours and served as an ice-breaker, helping people to have “easy conversation” without the feeling of invading someone else’s privacy or personal space.
Unsurprisingly, barking dogs are one of the top concerns that people have when they think about allowing pets in apartments. It is important to remember, though, that the vast majority of dogs are not nuisance barkers.
Also, dogs already live across Australia in 39% of households. You wouldn’t even know that most of these dogs were there.
Issues with barking in apartments can be managed in the same way as in detached housing. This involves talking with the owner of the dog and involving the local council if the issue persists.
Importantly, apartments also bring another layer of regulation. The same noise by-laws that can be used to stop your neighbour playing loud music all night also apply to pets.
Existing model by-laws are unnecessarily restrictive. While some are “other regarding”, ensuring that animals do not have negative impacts on the experience of others living in the strata building, many (such as blanket pet bans) are “self-regarding”.
These by-laws do not regulate a specific behaviour that may have impacts on other residents, such as barking. Instead, these are blanket restrictions that limit residents’ choices regardless of whether these would have impacts on others.
The current model by-law that favours small dogs is a good example of an “other regulating” by-law. It also comes with a sting in the tail: some large dogs are behaviourally quite well suited to living in apartment buildings, while some small dogs are high energy and not as suited to this type of living unless kept by someone who is able to meet these energy needs.
The current by-laws therefore risk encouraging some pets that are entirely unsuited to apartment living.
Proposed changes to strata regulation in NSW are open for public comment until May 27, 2016. If the changes are adopted, new strata schemes should be encouraged to adopt one of the pet-friendly by-laws. Existing schemes can also be proactive and consider making changes to their by-laws to make them more pet-friendly.
Beyond changes to strata regulation, apartment and urban design that is pet-friendly is needed so that people can live well with companion animals. Design measures such as good sound-proofing, ledges and windows that allow animals to see outside, and pet-friendly open spaces in and around apartment buildings (including gardens and local parks) are good for the wellbeing of people and animals.
We should also support good neighbouring. Recent research, including my own with pet owners, suggests that in many strata communities neighbours make formal complaints about neighbours rather than knocking on the door and having a chat.
Some pet owners claim to be unaware that their pet has been a nuisance to others until they get a letter from the strata committee. This is not only stressful, it also limits the opportunity for people to respond to any issues.
Pet keeping is already widespread in Australia and brings numerous benefits to individuals and communities. Rather than trying to restrict the presence of pets in one type of housing, it is time to think about how we can live well with our companion animals.