Landlord Sandy Zalagens' ad seeking a tenant for one of her 12 units may be one for the dogs. It read: "Rent is $950; $150 a month discount if you adopt Big Louie."
Big Louie is an 80-pound gray brindle Pitbull.
Jessie McElwee stepped up and now is living quite happily with the big guy -- and a cat -- in the Los Angeles apartment. Zalagens, a realtor with Keller Williams in Los Angeles, calls McElwee her "dream tenant" and acknowledges that her ad may have danced around some fair housing laws. Truth is, she isn't sure and nobody is lining up to tell Big Louie that he has to move on.
"Yeah, it probably wasn't legal and I did catch some flack," Zalagens said, "but dog-rescuing is important to me." She rescued her first dog in 1993 and began doing it in earnest seven years ago. She sponsors a rescue dog every time she sells a house and has rallied the support of her real estate office in fund-raising races for rescues.
Dogs feature prominently in the 47-year-old Zalagens' second act. Selling real estate may still pay the bills, but the passion comes in finding homes for displaced dogs. For the past few years, she's focused her efforts on pets made homeless through foreclosures.
One thing that typically happens when a family loses their home is that they become renters. And landlords, by and large, haven't allowed them to move in with pets, Zalagens said. Shelters confirm this and note that the housing crisis has caused their intake to skyrocket. Pet-adverse landlords have left people with the choice of turning their four-legged friends in to shelters or worse, setting their dogs and cat loose in the neighborhood to fend for themselves.
"Landlords who don't permit pets to move in are a huge part of the homeless pet problem," Zalagens said, when asked what led to her unusual rental offer. "I just felt I had to do something to address that." So she put her money where her mouth is and made Big Louie part of the rental deal. And while the offer was couched in terms of a rental discount, the message was clearly "take him or leave it." Zalagens, who says she hopes to rid the rental market of discrimination against pet owners, is working on compiling a list of pet-friendly landlords.
"Dogs are my big why," Zalagens said. She lives in the West Adams area of Los Angeles, a neighborhood of historic homes. Many of her rescues come from her neighborhood, she says.
While she rescues all breeds, she admits to being a soft touch for a pitbull in need. Why? "They are the underdog of today's dog world." She blames the perception of the breed as vicious and untrustworthy on irresponsible owners and backyard breeders. Insurance companies have been known to charge more for homes with pitbulls. Yet many pitbull owners swear by the gentle nature of their pets.
As for Big Louie, his story is pretty typical. He was abandoned by his family and left to roam the neighborhood. Before Zalagens could get to him, he was picked up by animal control. Zalagens located him in a South L.A. shelter and convinced Downtown Dog Rescue -- one of the rescue groups she regularly works with -- to spring him and foster him until she could find him a permanent home.
Big Louie certainly appears to be a happy camper nowadays. Sharing the couch with his co-tenant cat, "He's just a big mush," Zalagens said.
"Big Louie happened to be a pitbull," she said, "but if he had been a little Yorkie, my ad would have said "$150 discount on rent if you adopt this cute Yorkie" and the apartment probably would have rented in a minute instead of two weeks."
Sandy Zalagens with Big Louie.
Big Louie with his co-tenant cat.
Tenant Jessie McElwee with Big Louie.