On July 21-23, 2019, RealPage® hosted RealWorld 2019 at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, FL and welcomed property management executives and real estate investment professionals from across the nation. Attendees with backgrounds in IT, leasing, marketing, operations, finance, accounting and asset management came for the latest product innovations, industry trends and networking opportunities and went home with new ideas, connections and education credits.
The annual user conference included sessions covering a variety of topics ranging from business intelligence, data analytics, innovations in technology, and current property management industry trends. “Unleash Your Pet Policies” was a session in particular that explored one of the hottest topics in rental housing — household pets and assistance animals.
This session was hosted by a lively panel including: John Bradford, CEO and Founder of PetScreening; Greg Proctor, Vice President of RealPage Compliance Services; Gina Carter, Vice President of Portfolio Operations at Blue Ridge Companies; Nia Pinheiro, Executive Vice President of The Pinheiro Group; Jennifer Stoops, Senior Vice President at Park Avenue Properties; and Pat Patterson (moderator), Director of Multifamily at PetScreening.
The panelists dug deep into the data, guidelines and best practices for navigating laws and assistance animal regulations and debated how property managers can use pet policies to drive pet owner satisfaction and increase revenue. This informative and knowledge-packed session gave attendees insight into:
- policy trends for pets, no pets and assistance animals to help ensure a welcoming, but accountable, community culture.
- industry data that might change minds and open hearts regarding breed, weight or age restrictions and generate new revenue.
- the latest HUD federal guidelines and state legislative actions related to assistance animal accommodation requests and subsequent misrepresentations.
- real-world pet/animal experiences and lessons learned, from property managers across the country regarding pet policies and assistance animals.
Here are 3 key takeaways from “Unleash Your Pet Policies”:
#1 - Increase property revenue with a tiered-pet fee structure and open breed policy.
When implementing either of these revenue strategies, it’s helpful to have a screening tool in place that measures the level of risk you would be taking on by renting your property to each pet and pet owner that submits a rental application.
To set up a tiered-pet fee structure, you’ll need to determine the number of tiers, pricing for each tier, and qualifications for each tier. Understanding the housing-related risk factors based on pet and pet owner data, like what is included in a FIDO Score™, can serve as the foundation for your tiered structure. For example, if the lowest calculated score that a pet can receive translates to the highest risk you would assume when renting to that pet and pet owner, and the highest calculated score that a pet can receive translates to the lowest risk, you would place higher pet-fee charges on the lowest scores and lower charges on the highest scores. To create multiple pricing tiers between your highest and lowest scores, set score ranges.
Park Avenue Properties has been successful with using this pricing approach. “We tiered our non-refundable pet fees and pet rent based on the risk score results we receive from the screening tool and have increased our pet revenue by 33%.” said Jennifer Stoops.
Another opportunity for generating additional pet revenue involves an open breed policy. This type of pet policy has no restrictions on the types of breeds that can be accepted. Property managers who offer this “open-door policy” expose themselves to more potential residents who are qualified to rent and create a deterrent for a potential renter to submit a false accommodation request in an effort to bypass a breed restriction. According to Nia Pinheiro, an open breed policy is an attractive factor that sets her firm apart from her competitors. “We are the only one in our market that has an open breed policy,” Penheiro said. “We have generated significant pet revenue by differentiating our firm this way.”
#2 - Reduce risk with a standard review process for assistance animal accommodation requests that follows HUD guidelines.
Any person with a not readily apparent, or non-obvious/invisible disability, who is seeking to live with his or her assistance animal, is asked to submit a reasonable accommodation request. Due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of HUD guidelines as they pertain to reasonable accommodation requests, property managers often forgo their rights to request proper supporting documentation from the Requesters. In many cases, assistance animal fraud occurs as a result of a non-thorough review by the housing provider.
“We recently had a pit bull that was a verified assistance animal but a short time later that pit bull bit another dog in the dog park.” explained Gina Carter. It’s important to note that “just because they have a certificate doesn’t mean they have a true disability.” Carter added.
John Bradford went on to explain. “There is no such thing as a federal agency recognized national registry for assistance animals. A registration certificate, for example, is not sufficient documentation under the Fair Housing Act. If the disability is not readily-apparent, the property manager is well within their rights to ask the prospective resident to “provide third-party documentation from a health care professional affirming that a disability and a disability-related need exists for the assistance animal.”
The important issue to note about an assistance animal is that you are only allowed to ask two questions if the Requester’s disability and disability-related need is non-obvious or invisible:
- Do you, or the person in your household seeking to use and live with the animal, have a disability?
- Do you, or the person in your household seeking to use and live with the animal, have a disability-related need for an assistance animal?
It is not only important to ask these two permissible questions, but to also validate and authenticate the documentation as credible, reliable and meets the test of reasonableness to help prevent assistance animal fraud. Third-party documentation from a health care professional often includes more information than requested and is confidential in nature. “Be very cautious with the sensitive documents the Requesters give to your team. Some could include detailed medical conditions or records – very sensitive information.” said Bradford. “This documentation should be securely stored in a timely manner to prevent legal claims associated with the mishandling of medical information by any employee or agent.”
Having a standard process in place to give every reasonable accommodation request the same comprehensive review can help ensure that all requests are properly vetted. This is where using a no-charge, third-party assistance animal validation provider can help. It will mitigate your liability, save a lot of time, and prevent unnecessary lost pet revenues while creating consistency and standardization for assistance animal review procedures.
#3 - Educate on-site staff and ALL residents on company pet policies.
All panelists agreed that there’s often a tremendous lack of information and misunderstanding of rules when it comes to pet policies and accommodation requests. Educating residents about your policies is an on-going process that doesn’t end after the rental application is submitted.
As Pat Patterson put it, “It is better to educate, not legislate.”
A common misconception among residents without pets is that pet policies do not apply to them, and this may be due to lack of communication from property management. Residents without pets who take up pet-sitting or get a pet midway through their lease and do not report the pet to their property manager may have little to no knowledge of their property manager’s pet policies.
This explains why the reasons for having unauthorized pets vary from not knowing the pet policy, to the pet is just visiting temporarily, or the pet is an emotional support animal. Realistically, ending the behavior of bringing unauthorized pets on-site entirely may be difficult, if not impossible. However, it’s likely to become a rare occurrence if your leasing staff takes a proactive approach to help educate all residents by having them acknowledge your pet policies during the initial rental application process and at lease renewal.
“I think the most important thing to do is to educate,” said Pinheiro. After all, when residents are informed and acknowledge their understanding of your policies, they’re more likely to stick to them. “From a landlord perspective, I educate all my residents on the rules and terminology which has influenced more responsible renters.”