Recognizing an Early-Adopter in Rental Housing Pet Inclusivity

A Chat with Eric Brown, Founder of Urbane Apartments

By Judy Bellack, Industry Principal, The Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative

I recently had the opportunity to chat via Zoom with long-time friend, entrepreneur, author, and real estate developer Eric Brown, founder of Urbane Apartments in Royal Oak, Michigan. Eric and I first met when he was one of the pioneers of multifamily social media marketing and I was leading an early-stage social media product with Apartment Finder (yes, that was quite some time ago!). We caught up via Zoom from Eric’s self-titled OffGrid Cabin, after inadvertently touching base on LinkedIn about pets and housing. The conversation was fantastic on many levels, and I wanted to share his experience on marketing to pet owners WAY before it was a thought for industry operators; and if you know Eric, you know that being on the bleeding edge of industry change is no surprise at all.

Judy:  Eric, you’ve long been an innovator in multifamily, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that this extended to your perspective on pets in rental housing.  Tell me more.

Eric:  I believe it was around 2004 when I looked at all the pet restrictions and thought it was a really dumb strategy. So many of us were calling ourselves “pet friendly,” and yet we were defining acceptable dogs pretty narrowly. Not to mention, sticking a pencil in the resident’s eye by then charging pet fees.  

Judy:  So, what did you do?

Eric:  I decided that if we’re going to say we’re pet friendly, we needed to own it. That meant no pet fees and no breed or size restrictions. It also meant training our staff on the mantra that “we love pets.” Someone comes in and says they have a 100-pound dog? “We love 100-pound dogs!” Someone comes in and says they have a pit bull? “We love pit bulls!” Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs, but I saw this as a great marketing tool. I knew that if a prospect walked in with a larger dog or a typically banned breed, we had them. 

Judy:  How was that received?

Eric:  Well, there were a lot of people in the industry who thought I had lost my mind. But it worked, and we gained a lot of grateful residents who stuck around. My philosophy has always been that if you do a great job screening, you get great residents; and those residents have great pets. It always comes down to how responsible the pet owner is. And honestly, in 20 years we only had a handful of times when a pet did notable damage to a unit. More importantly, we had only two incidents where a dog became aggressive; we handled these situations by being kind but firm, and the residents understood that we couldn’t allow an aggressive dog on site. There was only one free pass, then we worked with them to exit smoothly and without penalty.

Judy:  And what about your non-pet-owning residents? Were they accepting?

Eric:  Yes, and we did a lot to make sure that happened. I’m a big believer in partner marketing, and one of the things we did was brand all our pet waste stations with a local doggie day care and training provider. Once a week, they would host an Urbane Community Dog Walk with residents, and while on the walks they would conduct little training moments. They got a lot of participation and brought an enormous amount of education to the table, which made for a great community experience. We also hired a local company to pick up dog waste periodically; it wasn’t expensive, and they would actually help us identify residents who weren’t picking up after their pets. Again, we always handled these situations with kindness and empathy, and it just wasn’t a problem.

Judy: OK, that’s amazing – and I love the idea of partner marketing! Were there other partners you worked with?

Eric:  Yes, a notable example was with Nature’s Miracle – you know, the pet stain and odor remover? We worked with them to brand our dog parks “Nature’s Miracle Dog Parks, and they provided us with free products to hand out to our residents. This kind of partner marketing was impactful in so many ways; residents were getting something from us for free, and better yet, they were using the product. This simple marketing partnership helped our residents keep their units clean and odor free, and Nature’s Miracle ultimately sold more products. 

Judy: It’s impressive what you accomplished by being truly pet inclusive during a time when that simply wasn’t on the industry’s radar.  What would you say to today’s rental housing operators who maintain pet restrictions and are now charging – in some cases – not only a pet deposit, but non-refundable pet fees and pet rent?

Eric:  Well, I think operators are missing the fact that all these fees are driving the number of ESA requests – which is also causing their staff a lot of extra work and headaches. Not to mention, you can’t call yourself “pet friendly” and then say no, no, no constantly. It’s OK to make the conscious decision not to have pets be part of the offering. But to attempt to be all things to all prospects — when you really aren’t — is disingenuous. The prospect or resident sees through it. Yes, pet fees have become part of the practice of generating revenue and income; however, the marketing lift realized by dropping them far, far outweighs that gain. Just having endorse us drove more rental traffic to our website than any purchased ad words ever did – ever. And to expound on “We LOVE Pets” has a much more far-reaching effect on closing leases versus the presence of fees. 

Judy: Thank you, Eric! I can’t wait to see where your path takes you and the continued innovation you bring.