The latest hurdle tripping up Utah renters may seem like a strange one: Before they can move in, many are being required by landlords to get — and pay for — DNA tests for their pets.
Most renters with a cat or dog are used to paying largely nonrefundable pet deposits and additional monthly fees when seeking housing with animals. But as the latest addition to the list adds yet another complication, pet owners are warning others to beware of the potential unexpected cost.
The DNA tests are not being used to identify a dog’s breed, as you might expect — though some property management companies won’t accept breeds that are deemed too aggressive, such as pit bulls, for liability reasons.
Instead, landlords use the tests essentially the same way detectives do — when an animal poops on the lawn or in common areas, DNA can identify the offender and the owner who didn’t pick it up.
Tenants here have been charged as much as $65, according to personal accounts that renters shared with The Salt Lake Tribune, to have their cat’s or dog’s cheek swabbed during the application process — and a few who did so didn’t even end up being approved for the unit.
And once you move in, you could be charged a hefty fine if a maintenance worker finds your pet’s waste and sends it to a lab for testing. If it’s confirmed to be from your animal, some Utahns have reported, you may be charged as much at $150 for not properly disposing of it.
Paul Smith, executive director of Utah Apartment Association, said pet DNA testing is becoming common in Utah and that the majority of large apartment complexes have adopted the practice.
“I think it makes pet-friendly housing more accessible,” Smith said. “If I’m a landlord … now that I have this service, it holds people accountable.”
PooPrints, a BioPet research lab based in Knoxville, Tenn., has even compiled a national registry of pet DNA samples to help landlords across the country identify tenants who aren’t picking up after their dog.
Smith estimated that 75% of renters in Utah have a pet. Services like PooPrints, he believes, provide assurance to landlords that the common areas of their complexes won’t be littered with waste — and gives them recourse if they are. It helps owners keep things clean.
But it’s also costing renters who say they’re already having a hard time finding places that will accept them.
Rilie Atkinson, a student at the University of Utah, said that she was turned away by multiple properties despite having a cat that is certified as an emotional support animal, as well as a dog. Atkinson said she wants to live downtown to be close to the university.
“I’ve had a really difficult time trying to find somewhere that even allows two pets to begin with,” though, she said. “It’s really frustrating because there’s not really anything I can do.”
Atkinson reported that on at least three occasions, she emailed a property manager and asked if it was worth applying for a unit with her pets. Each time she was told no. There seems to be a bias against people who own animals, she said.
The pet DNA tests are just another cost, another barrier, another mark against her application, she said.
Kristen Taylor, who lives in South Salt Lake, has been at her complex for a year and a half, and her landlord just added the DNA testing requirement. The complex paid for the test for her dog, Kara, however, since Taylor already was a resident.
She doesn’t mind the testing policy, but isn’t sure it’s necessary for everyone. “Those of us who are responsible pet owners were going to pick up after our dogs anyways,” Taylor said.
PooPrints, though, believes the testing will make more landlords open to allowing pets.
The poop policing process has resulted in a 95% reduction in abandoned waste, said Makenzie Towns, the company’s sales operations manager.
“The issue just stops,” she noted. “People realize it’s science. You can’t fight science. It’s an accountability program that builds a better culture because people have to pick up after themselves. They can’t blame it on someone else or pass the buck.”
PooPrints started in 2010 but didn’t find a foothold in Utah until 2017. Before that, only 20 communities used the service in the state. Now there are about 110, Towns said.
“If you think of an apartment complex that has 300 units, you’ve got about 150 dogs,” she added. “If 40% of people don’t pick up and their dog goes twice a day, that can get really disgusting really fast.”
Towns said on average, each of the registration kits that PooPrints provides costs $45 for the property management companies. The companies can either pay the cost themselves or pass it on to applicants. Towns said that about half of the companies purchase the kits themselves, so she doesn’t think the cost is too burdensome to most.
It’s not just that cost, though, that’s problematic. It’s that the price of the DNA test is in addition to already mounting fees for pet owners and the few options they already have for housing because they have an animal, said Kristina Pulsipher, co-founder of the Ruff Haven Crisis Shelter in Salt Lake City.
And more people are running into such issues, with a huge increase in those who have adopted a cat or dog during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We see a lot of challenges with people trying to access housing,” Pulsipher said. “Affordable housing is an issue, but affordable housing with a pet … is just an insurmountable challenge for a lot of people.”
Pulsipher opened Ruff Haven in January 2020 to help provide a home to pets whose owners couldn’t care for them because of an emergency. But amid the current affordable housing crisis in Utah, instead of serving pet owners who are hospitalized or displaced, Pulsipher said, 70% of the pets that come into her shelter arrive because their owners can’t secure pet-friendly housing.
“We have a lot of clients facing eviction,” Pulsipher said. “I would say we probably average 10 to 15 applications a week.”
Ruff Haven recently began to help subsidize clients who can’t afford to apply to apartment units because of expensive pet fees. Pulsipher said she isn’t sure how much more the shelter can shell out to help with the additional cost of DNA tests.
Correction: 1:25 p.m. June 18: This story has been updated to reflect that Kristen Taylor’s landlord paid for a recent DNA test of her dog and she doesn’t mind having the policy in place.