There are a lot of reasons why I can’t live in New York City any more. Most of them have to do with family and personal commitments I have here in California, but even if those were to suddenly disappear, NYC long since stopped being a place that welcomes those who aren’t drowning in cash. It’s not a unique story, of course: The same goes for San Francisco, just across the Bay from me, and now Oakland, and a score of other cities that have traditionally been open to people looking for a new start. We were never really the Land of Opportunity — at least not as much as we liked to pretend — but the opportunities have become narrower than ever in the last couple of decades.
In short, we have enough barriers to housing without erecting more out of pettiness and fear. To his credit, New York State Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-NYC) is trying to bring down one of those by backing legislation that would forbid landlords and public housing from banning dogs based on their breed or weight.
The law may be framed in general language, but when you get down to it, this is all about Pit Bulls. Zebrowski himself owns a Pit, and is vocal about their suitability as pets: “[T]here really is no evidence a certain type of breed is dangerous,” he told CBS. “You could have a docile shepherd, or you could have an aggressive Maltese. It’s really how they’re trained and brought up.”
The New York City Housing Authority, which oversees low-income housing projects, specifically restricted Dobermans, Pit Bulls, and Rottweilers in 2009. Those same guidelines also banned all dogs over 25 pounds (the maximum weight had previously been 40 pounds).
If Zebrowski’s law passes, it would undo the NYCHA policy and apply to private landlords as well. “You can have no dogs, you can have a restriction on the number of dogs, you can have some sort of subjective criteria to evaluate the dog, make sure they are not dangerous,” he said in an interview with ABC. “You just can’t banish all of one type of breed.”
Not only should New York pass this law, but it’s far past time that other states learn from the example and do away with breed-specific legislation. Such laws are almost entirely a form of legal theater that do nothing to actually protect the common welfare. Instead, they draw on prejudices and fears to convince the people that their leaders are taking some kind of decisive action, without the inconvenience of ever having to take such action.
Worst of all, when it’s applied to housing, the burden of breed-specific laws falls hardest on the poor and powerless. Finding housing in a major metropolitan area is already an expensive and humiliating process. Not only do you have to have the money (difficult enough), but you have to be able to prove that you’re worthy. There is the procedure of submitting credit reports, references, and employment history. If you’re applying for low-income housing, it’s even trickier and more complicated; the chance to have a place to live could evaporate if you or a family member has a history of substance abuse. All of this so that people have shelter.
In the crush of gentrification, I’ve known many people who have found themselves suddenly evicted for one transparent reason or another. In the ensuing hunt, the choice between keeping their dog and becoming homeless is a common, and very real one. Passing Zebrowski’s law won’t eliminate the need for that choice, but maybe it will make it just a little less common.