In a city transformed in recent years by a huge influx of young professionals, many of them pet owners, dogs are seemingly ubiquitous these days in gentrified neighborhoods of the District. Almost every new luxury residential high-rise in the nation’s capital caters to canines, offering rooftop dog parks and other pooch-friendly amenities.
Ricardo Love, by contrast, is no affluent newcomer. Unable to work because of a back injury that causes him chronic pain, the 50-year-old D.C.-area native lives alone in a one-bedroom public-housing apartment and gets by on monthly disability payments.
Yet Love has something in common with a lot of his fellow Washingtonians who pay premium rents: “I like dogs,” he says, adding, “I’d really like to have me one.”
Now, finally, he will get the chance.
Urged for years by animal-welfare groups to scrap its long-standing rule against pets in public housing, the D.C. Housing Authority has agreed to relax the policy somewhat, starting in a few weeks. Elderly and disabled tenants, who occupy about one-third of the agency’s 50-plus apartment complexes, will soon be allowed to own dogs, cats, fish and certain types of caged critters, with a size restriction for dogs and a limit to the number of pets per household.
“It’ll be great, because I’m all by myself,” Love says. “Constantly I’m in pain, every day, back and forth to physical therapy, seeing doctors, going to pain management and stuff like that. And it would be a blessing for me to have a companion.”
The policy change, however, goes only so far.
For a large majority of public-housing tenants — meaning thousands of people living in apartment complexes that are not designated strictly for elderly and disabled residents — the no-pets rule will still apply. Among those tenants, the only people exempt from the prohibition are residents who are legally certified as needing pets or service dogs to help with mobility or emotional problems. That has been the case for years.
Because of the continuing ban, the two biggest advocacy groups for allowing pets in public housing say they are not satisfied with the revised policy. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Rescue Alliance called the housing authority’s decision merely “a positive first step.”
The groups argue that all tenants should be allowed to keep pets. In reviewing the pet policies of 150 public-housing agencies in the United States, the ASPCA says, it found that only three are as strict as the D.C. regulations.
The public-housing agencies in Philadelphia, New York and Boston, for example, do not limit pet ownership just to elderly and disabled tenants, although each agency has a size restriction for dogs. The ASPCA and humane alliance also say they object to the size limit for dogs owned by elderly and disabled tenants in the District. When fully grown, the canines must weigh 40 pounds or less and be no more than 15 inches tall.
“It’s basically unfair,” says David Smith, a spokesman for the humane alliance. “The vast majority of animals that are in our shelters are above the size restrictions, and so the residents who want pets are unlikely to adopt from us.”
Echoing the ASPCA, Smith says it is untrue that larger dogs — at least those adopted from well-run shelters — would be more dangerous or create bigger nuisances in apartment buildings.
“We put every animal through a behavior test and we give every animal a complete medical checkup,” he says. “We spay and neuter them. The dogs that we place in homes have been cared for and are ready to be adopted.”
Deborah Dubow Press, the ASPCA’s director of regulatory affairs, says she suspects that the housing authority, in continuing to bar pets in most of its complexes, is doing so to avoid to the hassle and cost of dealing with animal-related complaints.
“The rationale for prohibiting pets, as far as we can tell, is that they just don’t want to have to deal with it,” Press says. “I think they have no interest whatsoever in the minor additional administrative burden this would create.”
A housing authority spokesman, Rick White, says the agency decided to restrict pet ownership to elderly and disabled tenants after hearing from public-housing residents citywide, most of whom do not want animals in their buildings. “We’re responding to the input we received,” he says, adding that the height and weight limits result from “specific requests to manage the size of animals in the communities.”
In the Garfield Terrace apartments, in the LeDroit Park area of Northwest Washington, one of Love’s ninth-floor neighbors, Gregory Williams, has experienced the wariness, even hostility, that some tenants have toward animals in their buildings.
Last year, Williams, 62, who says he suffers from major depression, presented the housing authority with a letter from a psychiatrist, attesting that animal companionship would help him cope with his illness. There are no size limits on service or emotional-comfort animals. After being approved for ownership, Williams visited a humane alliance shelter in December and adopted a gray-and-white cane corso-pit bull mix.
The dog now weighs about 70 pounds.
“I’m having a lot of complaints about him,” Williams says. “You know, he’s not making much noise. It’s just that the people around here, they’re mostly older people, and some of them are disabled. They automatically think he’s too big for an apartment. And I think they’re afraid of him, too. But he’s as friendly as can be.”
Williams says he tells his neighbors that his dog “is really helping me with being balanced. Since I’ve had this dog, when I have my bad days, when I’m depressed, I’ll come in the house, the dog jumps on me, and I hug him. It cheers me up.”
He says, “Taking care of this puppy has given me a whole new life.”
In revising the pet regulations for elderly and disabled tenants in buildings such as Garfield Terrace, officials left little to interpretation.
There’s a two-pet limit per apartment, not including service or psychological-support animals. “A reasonable number of fish or other animals appropriately kept in an aquarium or cage shall be considered one pet,” the rules state. Aquariums cannot exceed 15 gallons, and if a tenant has two aquariums, they must be kept in separate rooms.
The policy specifies: “Only domesticated animals that are commonly kept as household pets, such as dogs, cats, birds, rodents, fish, or turtles, are permitted. The term ‘common household pet’ shall not include reptiles, other than turtles.” There are an array of rules concerning pet registration, sterilization and, of course, waste cleanup.
Love, a former Metro technician who injured his back in a traffic accident, says he followed the authority’s policymaking process closely.
And pretty soon, he’ll start shopping for a pooch.
“I used to have me one,” he says, referring to the Rottweiler that he had to give up when he moved into public housing seven years ago. The dog, named Diamond, lives with Love’s mother in Maryland. He says he occasionally visits Diamond, but the bond between them has been lost, and he has no desire to reclaim the animal.
Besides, Diamond is far too tall and heavy now for public housing.
“Going to get me a new one,” Love says, buoyantly. “Going to start fresh.”