The Times-Picayne newspaper announcement seemed harmless enough. Hens and eggs were for sale at the New Orleans area flea market and the Latino Farmers Cooperative was about to start its urban chickens education series. It stated, “Partners in the event are the LSU AgCenter School of Agriculture, and associate professor of poultry, Theresia Lavergne, who will provide in-depth knowledge on how to raise hens in urban settings.”
Those last few words are highlighted for the property manager and owner. In landlord vocabulary, animals equal liability – but putting aside vague concerns like avian flu - how much risk is really involved with these birds? In the U.S. raising urban chickens has gone mainstream, even though we raise only a fraction of the world’s 23 billion birds domestically. Besides, in the current climate of anything-to-snag-a-renter, managers may need to create specific lease language to cover the practice. The tentative manager could require annual renewal or a 6-month trial period, but there should be an established policy, even if it is a prohibition.
Prompted by urban agriculture enthusiasts, community organizations, those with disease concerns, food sourcing issues, organic ideals and sustainability practices, the urban coop movement continues to expand. The recession has created a climate in which many families can benefit from greater self-sufficiency. As eggs are a high quality source of cheap protein, the Mayor of Missoula, Montana gained a bit of attention a while back. Shortly before the City Council passed the ordinance in favor of urban chickens in 2007, he was quoted as saying:
“It seems that if we want to be a town that does its part for sustainability, this is something we ought to consider. I think we want to allow folks to use their good judgment and move toward more sustainable food practices.” – Mayor John Engen
It is interesting to note that in the year following passage, the City received only 14 complaints. Anxious property managers may want to call Missoula’s city manager and see if things are still going well, but more importantly, find out what their own city allows.
A study of 25 chicken-friendly cities’ ordinances was released by KT Labadie of the University of New Mexico in 2008. One study conclusion was that there was no ‘national’ urban chicken policy. Each ordinance varied and a few were so difficult to locate within city codes that Labadie identified this issue as a major contributor to non-compliance. Over the last three years the urban chicken coop movement has further accelerated. Portland, Oregon was one of the cities that made an exception to their livestock ordinance. It labels the birds as ‘pets’ and lumps them in with other domesticated farm animals. The City’s Code Section 13.05.015, Paragraph E states:
“A person keeping a total of three or fewer chickens, ducks, doves, pigeons, pygmy goats or rabbits shall not be required to obtain a specified animal facility permit. If the Director determines that the keeper is allowing such animals to roam at large, or is not keeping such animals in a clean and sanitary condition, free of vermin, obnoxious smells and substances, then the person shall be required to apply for a facility permit to keep such animals at the site.”
This summer the Portland non-profit urban agriculture group, Growing Gardens, is offering a ‘Tours de Coops’ on June 24th, 2010. Promoted as a family event, it is also an effective method in which urban gardening groups and community organizations are providing free public education. Growing Gardens promises:
“Chicken owners throughout Portland will open their yards so you can see their coops and meet their chickens. The Tour de Coops is a self-guided tour; you’ll have the opportunity to visit as many as 25 backyard chicken coops all over East Portland – getting to know your neighbors while learning and sharing urban chicken keeping ideas.”
Whether owners and property managers have the facilities, space or temperament for a backyard chicken coop, some city ordinances do allow chickens even within multifamily zoning. Although this is an admirable effort to avoid erecting barriers for lower-income residents, urban chickens may not be compatible on every property. The pro-active manager should determine the requirements for an urban coop and make their decision about policy before a resident asks for coop privileges.
If you decide to allow urban chicken keeping do it with style but cover all the issues well. At a minimum your pet policy and lease agreement should cover:
- Number and sex of chickens permitted per family – particularly rooster regulation
- References to resident compliance with chicken keeping city and building restrictions
- Restrictions and requirements for humane containers and enclosures
- Slaughtering regulations – indoor, outdoor or not permitted
- Coop siting requirements including a specific number of feet from residences, property lines (varies by city from 10 to 100 feet)
- Identifying the tenant’s responsibility to pay all permits, fees and fines levied by city government
- Pet deposits and guarantees for future coop removal and/or grounds restoration
- Requirement for and defining ’immediate’ correction of nuisance complaints judged legitimate by management
Chicken Facts: 3 or 4 hens will produce one to two dozen eggs a week, more than adequate for a typical city family’s consumption. The average hen has her most productive egg-laying in her first 12 months but will generally live well beyond her egg-laying years. The oldest chicken on record lived to 16 years, but most live between 6 and 10 with good caretaking and predator protection. Whether you consider them pets or livestock, recent evidence suggests chickens were first domesticated in Vietnam 10,000 years ago, not India, which had been the long-standing historical assumption.
City Regulations: About half of the cities that allow urban chickens have loose regulations, which seem to get looser the longer the program is in place. Permit fees are charged by some, with others not even requiring any registration. Some cities have no regulation on cooping and don’t limit free-range policies either. A few allow one rooster, others multiples, but these cities then must deal with noise complaints. The majority either highly restrict or prohibit roosters. Although some chicken keepers believe a rooster in the hen house increases egg production, I could not find an authority to back this claim. Roosters are also aggressive with children, so banning them has its benefits for both submissive hen and small child. The Coalition of Lawrence Urban Chicken Keepers has a search site by state which outlines many of the bigger cities’ policies across the country.
Coop Materials: Lower income families may not have the means to buy or build professional- looking coops, so if you are going to have restrictions on materials and design, make this clear up front. Chicken coops are often made from salvaged materials and so it may be important to consult with your neighborhood homeowners’ association before giving permission to build one. Many CC&Rs have restrictions on free-standing and/or other temporary structures, so if you manage condos, do check the covenants, conditions and restrictions. Cities generally do not regulate the size or form of coops, as they fall into the same category as doghouses.
Rodent Control: Rats are already an urban problem. Introducing chickens may not be a good idea unless the chicken feed can be securely stored in rat-proof containers and locations. This advice applies for dog and cat food, by the way, as it should not be left unattended outdoors.
Humane Treatment: Birds should have an appropriate amount of square footage living area with access to fresh air, sunshine and a covered run. In cloudy and colder climates, artificial light is recommended and all coops should be appropriately insulated. Any chicken keeping agreements should include a clause that requires tenants to seek veterinary treatment for sick animals, and chickens should also be protected from predators. If coops are portable, they can be moved to protect the grounds which also creates a healthier environment for the birds. Chickens are also social animals, so buying just one baby chick is actually cruel. Keeping a minimum of three hens creates community for them. Hens are collaborative in chick-rearing and helping each other. To be happy they need a couple of good BFFs (Best Friends Forever).
Nuisances: In fairness to good urban keepers, although chickens exhibit no proclivity for house-training, properly groomed chickens with clean cages do not create bad odors or present hygiene concerns. Flies, rodents, noise, smells, public health concerns, dirty coops and improper disposal of manure are all issues that can arise with poorly trained or errant chicken keepers. Education is the key to solving these issues. Cities use permits and fines to raise funds for supervision and enforcement, but a pro-active landlord should develop a stronger supervision and prevention policy. Perhaps membership in an urban chicken keepers organization could be a required credential or evidence of experience. Whatever remedies and fines you decide are appropriate should be outlined in detail to prevent misunderstandings and preserve good tenant relations. Neighboring families often become closer when one of them is raising chickens, as it’s a friendly sort of activity and children love the birds.
Roosters: Beyond a voracious appetite for insects and an entertaining rocking gait, hens are cuddly and sweet-natured. Roosters, on the other hand, have issues. On this subject I will leave you with an anecdote from my youth. We lived on a residential 6 acre lot, and it was my responsibility to gather our chickens’ eggs. One hot, humid morning I was being punished for some sort of adolescent boundary-crossing. Confined to serve my time in the backyard – while my siblings went to the beach – I glared at my mother as she gathered the eggs.
I should mention here that our Bantam rooster, Jaws, and I got along fine as I was subtle. My mother, on the other hand, was a retired opera singer. Diva-like but inexperienced, she rushed into the chicken yard, pushed the hens aside and grabbed the eggs she needed for a Boston Crème Pie. As she walked toward the gate, Jaws - alerted by his squawking harem’s distress – flew into a rage and repeatedly attacked my mother’s large behind.
My elegant, cultured and generally nonathletic Mum leapt three feet off the ground in such rapid intervals that to my 12-year-old mind it was a glorious scene out of Disney’s Fantasia. Of course, these moves were accompanied by grand operatic shrieks and choice words. I confess I was paralyzed by such intense laughter, I never thought to help her. Now that I think about it, I never got a piece of that Boston Crème Pie either.
Editor’s Update April 15, 2010: Since the passage of New York’s beekeeping ordinance, Omlet, one of the companies offering Coops and Beehives has gone designer: http://www.omlet.us/homepage/ It’s a fun site.
Other Articles of Interest: