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How S.F.’s Housing Market Is Kicking Pets to the Curb

Hard times for hounds—and their owners.


At dawn, Madeline Wales woke up, carefully stowed and concealed her things, and took her two dogs out for a walk. She had to be out of the storeroom in the San Francisco nonprofit—formerly her place of employment and, for more than a year, her makeshift home—before it started buzzing with activity. There was no need for an alarm clock; the constant anxiety didn’t let her sleep much.

Wales, 51, moved to San Francisco two years ago. Within a year, both of her roommates sustained an injury that put them out of work. In June 2014, their monetary reserves depleted, they fled the city’s tightening housing market, leaving Wales to find a new home for herself and her two canine companions: MacGregor, a 100-pound St. Bernard mix, and Belker, a terrier mix a quarter of MacGregor’s size. Wales ended up crashing at this clandestine shelter; she initially saw it as a stopgap, but the months passed, and no landlord bit at the idea of allowing hulking, slobbery MacGregor through the door.

Wales’s situation is an extreme example of what renters, landlords, and animal advocates all agree is a squeeze on pet owners. While the rental market for humans alone is a challenge, obtaining housing in San Francisco—named for the patron saint of animals—is a beast for renters with pets. Nationwide, city dwellers with pets can expect to shell out 3.5 percent more in rent than their animal-free neighbors, according to data compiled by HotPads, a rental search engine. But in San Francisco’s dog-eat-dog rental market, the average pet-friendly apartment comes at nearly a 12 percent premium—and, mind you, that’s 12 percent above already ludicrous local rents.

San Francisco’s Rent Board documented a 57 percent spike in evictions between 2008 and 2014; in that same period, meanwhile, the number of animals surrendered at San Francisco’s SPCA leaped by 148 percent. The two statistics, say those in the pet rescue field, are hardly unrelated. “It’s worse now than it ever has been, and it’s been getting steadily worse for years,” says Linda Beenau, director of Wonder Dog Rescue, which is located in the Mission—the neighborhood that sees both the most evictions and the most pet surrenders. “The Ellis Act evictions, the speculation, it all adds up to making it harder for pet owners.”

The crunch extends to pet owners who manage to hang on in this city, but at the expense of their animals’ health. Veterinarians are encountering more and more clients who can no longer afford vet bills. San Francisco Aid for Animals, a grant provider for veterinary care that started during the recession, has seen continued need through the housing crisis. “There are some services out there for the homeless and very low-income, but not much for the public in general,” says Anne Marie Benfatto, a veterinarian and founding member of SFAFA. “We see people who were evicted, or maybe one member of the family lost her job, and they just can’t afford surgery for their animal.” San Francisco is still one of the nation’s leaders in dealing with its shelter animal population, with a well-above-average live-release rate. Even so, local rescues and shelters report that pet owners are leaving San Francisco—the families adopting animals in local shelters, they say, often hail from outside the city. 

After a year of living in the storeroom, Wales found herself teetering financially and emotionally. She regularly posts to a Facebook board for Bay Areans in search of pet-friendly housing (straightforwardly named Bay Area Pet Friendly Housing) that’s peppered with tales of desperate pet owners crashing with friends—or, for that matter, in a storeroom. It hits home for Wales: She and her dogs are currently crashing in a friend’s Marin trailer. “Things add up and compound, and you get closer to the breaking point,” she says. “A friend told me that I could get a great place if I gave up my dogs. But if my dogs aren’t there, it will never be a great place.”


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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