Pups in Kennel

Read the article at MauiTimes

The housing crisis is hitting animal-owning renters—and the Maui Humane Society—especially hard.

Kim Sanchez and her boyfriend left Maui in June after they were forced out of their Kihei rental. The property sold. They both worked in the service industry and were living paycheck to paycheck. They owned a three-year-old pit bull mix named Kai, and found most rentals in their price range stamped with the admonition: “No pets.” So they relocated to her parents’ place in New Jersey.

“It was a terrible decision,” said Sanchez. “We agonized over it. I lost sleep. [But] we couldn’t give her up.”

That’s a familiar story for Maui renters with pets in tow.

“It’s a real crisis we’re facing—a vicious, sometimes hopeless cycle,” said Maui Humane Society marketing director Katie Shannon. “I’m very concerned looking forward that [MHS] is going to bear the weight of this.”

By “this,” Shannon means Maui pet owners who can scarcely afford a place to live, let alone with a non-human tenant.

Maui’s cascading housing shortage and skyrocketing rent have impacted everyone. The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment on-island hovers around $2,700, making it tough-to-impossible for working-class people to secure and maintain housing. Own a dog, cat or other critter? You’re at an added disadvantage.

Landlords are hesitant to accept anyone they suspect might damage their property or cause additional headaches. Fair or not, that includes folks with animals. In this market, it’s easy for landlords to say “no.”

“We just kept hearing, ‘No, sorry.’ Or we didn’t hear anything at all,” said Sanchez. “It felt hopeless.” She could have surrendered her dog, but that wasn’t tenable. For anyone on-island confronted with the same conundrum, it comes down to a stark reality—their pet might be euthanized.

Maui Humane Society is an “open door” shelter. That means they’ll take on any animal regardless of age, health or temperament. “If we cannot place, care or rehabilitate an animal, we are equally committed to providing humane and compassionate euthanasia,” states the MHS website.

That’s a tough pill to swallow for animal lovers and no-kill advocates. Shannon acknowledges MHS has gained a reputation as a place unwanted pets go to die. 

“People have the impression that we’re a kill shelter, but we’re not,” she said. “We don’t euthanize any healthy, adoptable pets.”

MHS keeps internal statistics on live-release rates, meaning the percentage of animals that are adopted, transferred, reclaimed or released. In the 2021 fiscal year, MHS reported the following live-release stats: dogs (95.6 percent), cats (80.9 percent), other pets (71.6 percent) and wildlife (70 percent). 

Compare that to 2015, when MHS’s live-release rates were: dogs (81.1 percent), cats (25.9 percent), other pets (28.9 percent) and wildlife (20.5 percent). 

Still, animals are euthanized at Maui Humane Society. Frequently, their capacity is strained to bursting.

In June, for example, the shelter was overwhelmed by rabbits and guinea pigs, and a subsequent diagnosis of the potentially deadly rabbit hemorrhagic disease RHDV2. MHS responded by offering vaccination clinics to rabbit owners, but the nascent outbreak exposed the risks associated with having gaggles of animals caged in a limited space.

The rabbit and guinea pig influx may have been an anomaly. Some of the animals arrived under unique circumstances, such as a house fire. In July, MHS waived adoption fees via its Empty the Shelter program. But the steady stream of animals, spurred by the housing crisis, is a spiraling problem. And it’s not unique to Maui. 

Nationwide, according to Michelson Found Animals’ 2021 Pet-Friendly Housing Report, housing restrictions are the number one reason dogs are surrendered to shelters. Meanwhile, according to the report, 83 percent of pet-friendly unit vacancies in the U.S. are filled faster than non-pet-friendly vacancies, and the average damage caused by pets in rentals is a relatively modest $210, which can be covered by a deposit.

One solution is legislation that requires or incentivizes property owners to rent to pet owners. Nothing is pending at the state or county level, but there are examples elsewhere.

California, Illinois and Florida are all considering bills that would make it easier for pet owners to obtain rentals. At the federal level, HR5828, dubbed the Pets Belong With Families Act, would prohibit public housing agencies from imposing breed-specific restrictions. That should resonate here, where pit bulls—Hawaii’s unofficial state dog—are often viewed with skepticism. Shannon said pits and pit mixes are the most common breed brought to MHS.

“There’s a perception that they’re inherently dangerous, but that simply isn’t true,” she said. “They are incredibly intelligent, loving animals.” (“Blame the deed, not the breed” is a common refrain among pit advocates.)

At the height of the pandemic and through the tenuous post-pandemic era, many found solace in their pets. During a stay-at-home lockdown, an animal provided comfort and companionship—an emotional lifeline. That didn’t change when Hawaiʻi’s eviction moratorium ended in August 2021.

This is a complex issue that requires creative, multi-pronged solutions. Shannon suggested moving the conversation from pet-friendly rentals (which implies pets will be considered) to pet-inclusive rentals (which means pets are welcomed and prioritized). State and local lawmakers can do their part, and shelters can do their best. But the problem shows no signs of abating.

In the meantime, people like Kim Sanchez and pooches like Kai will keep getting forced out. And renters island wide will continue living in fear that their next eviction might be their last chance to stay with their four-legged friends on Maui.