Oakland is considering collecting and sharing more information on housing and rents in the city. Photo credit: Amir Aziz
If you are a tenant in Oakland, there are laws in place that dictate how much your landlord can charge you for monthly rent, when they can and cannot terminate you, and what steps you can take if they are harassing you.
Which of these safeguards apply to you, however, depends on the type of building you live in. For now, the only way to find out if and how you are protected by Oakand’s rental control guidelines is to familiarize yourself with the intricate conditions and know local housing laws or someone who does.
That’s one of the reasons many renters and supporters want Oakland to create a “rental register,” a database for every rental unit in town. Many rent-controlled cities such as Berkeley and San Francisco have such a database.
Registers differ in the type of information they collect, typically including the addresses of all rental units that are subject to a policy such as rental price control, and the actual or statutory rental prices for each apartment. Sometimes they note whether an apartment is currently occupied or vacant, to whom it belongs or whether previous tenants have been evicted. Sometimes these registers are publicly available online and sometimes the records are kept internally by the cities.
Oakland does not have a rental register, but the city’s Rent Adjustment Program (RAP) officials have been looking into the possibility of an implementation and plan to present initial results to the city council this summer. Ultimately, the city council would have to agree to create the database.
Currently, all Oakland landlords must register the addresses of their properties in order to obtain a business license and must pay a special fee of $ 101 per rental controlled unit they own. This money is used to administer the Rent Adjustment Program (RAP), which resolves disputes between tenants and landlords, and manages the city’s rental housing laws. Oakland landlords are not required to provide addresses for each individual unit they manage or the rent they charge.
At a council meeting in March, Chanée Franklin Minor, RAP director, described a register as “the final component in creating a truly active rental control program”.
“Our job is to make sure that rents are stable and that there are no excessive rents and that people don’t go away because of it,” she said. “We can’t do that if we don’t track rents – if we don’t have a system that does our job.”
However, many landlords are cautious about another bureaucratic imposition. Some fear releasing too much data about their company to the public. Others fear the registrar may charge them another fee. And in some cities, rental registers come with heavy penalties for not registering your unit: inability to collect or vacate rent.
Buffy Wicks, a State Assembly member who represents parts of Oakland, has repeatedly attempted to pass a law requiring a nationwide rental register. Every time she does that, landlord and real estate advocacy groups like the California Apartment Association stand up against it. Wicks’ third rent index just died in the congregation, which means she’ll have to reintroduce him in the next session so he has another chance.
But Oakland tenants and tenant-friendly city council members have signaled that they want to push local registration soon.
Renters say they deserve basic information about their rights
When renters come for a consultation with the Oakland Tenants Union (OTU), they often want to know if they are under the city’s rental brake to see if their landlord is overcharging them.
Under Oakland’s Rental Control, landlords can set rents at any price they want when a tenant moves in, but they can only increase the rent by a small percentage each year thereafter. However, not all tenants receive this protection. A state law called the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act excludes all buildings from rent control after 1995 or the year a local ordinance was enacted – in the case of Oakland, 1983. It is also said that single-family houses cannot be rent controlled.
“Most people don’t immediately know when their apartment was built,” says Emily Wheeler, an OTU member who advises tenants. Consultants like Wheeler don’t always know what to tell them, even when they find out the year of manufacture. There are cases where landlords have received exemptions from the fixed rental price although an apartment was built before 1983 or, conversely, a unit may look like an exempt single-family house but is technically considered an apartment building. Registration would remove the secret.
Tenants who fall under the rental price brake also receive other protection measures for apartments and vacations in Oakland. Hence, knowing the status of your building can make a huge difference.
“As a tenant, if I ever wanted to move, I would find it easier to find out if an apartment is occupied with a rental register,” said Mark Dias, co-chair of the OTU. “People should know this basic information about where they live.”
When Oakland creates a rental register, it will likely only include units that are subject to rental control, not newer apartments or single-family homes. Photo credit: Amir Aziz
However, Dias and Wheeler said the dataset is only complete if it includes rent-controlled units and all others, including apartments in new high-end buildings and single-family homes that operate as rental apartments.
According to RAP staff, the register under consideration would only include rent-linked apartments.
“I’m worried it won’t be comprehensive,” said Dias. “Oakland has a lot of uninhabited people and it would be nice to know how many properties in the market are currently not renting for whatever reasons.”
But even if the registry only covers rental controlled properties, the database would dramatically increase the potential for enforcement of this policy. Currently, it is up to tenants to file a complaint with the Rent Adjustment Program if they believe they have been granted an illegal rent increase. By registering, city officials could easily identify violations for themselves and proactively contact landlords who, in many cases, are unfamiliar with the policy and may have made an honest mistake.
Landlords fear attacks by the government
Derek Barnes, who represents local landlords as CEO of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, isn’t against a basic rental registry.
“Simply put, it’s a way to register the business you do in town – in this case providing rental housing – and somehow approve your credentials,” he said.
Furthermore, “it really depends on the type of information they’re collecting,” he said. “How invasive it is, how intrusive, how laborious and how often it is collected. It can begin to interfere in this huge amount of data collection. ”
Landlords in some cities, including San Jose, have been suing registries over privacy concerns, and they are sometimes being assisted by tenants. These concerns are most common in cities that collect or publicly disclose the names of landlords and tenants.
Property owners are also aware of the extra work that the city would take to compile and continually maintain a database of every Oakland rental. “Somebody pays for this,” Barnes said. Landlords fear that they will have to pay the registration bill in addition to the fees and taxes they have already charged. In addition to the RAP fee that landlords pay with rental controlled units, all landlords must pay Oakland business tax, which is approximately $ 14 per $ 1,000.
“The idea of adding additional compliance and requirements areas is a real challenge for many home owners,” said Barnes. “It affects our ability to run our business. Housing providers are sensitive to the tendency to be overwhelmed and the government is telling them how to run their business where this may not be the case in other industries. “
He said the concept of registration would be more palatable to landlords if they can get “value” from it and if they can use it to “mitigate risk”, for example by notifying them when they are about to undertake inspections.
How do rent registers work in other cities?
Oakland and Berkeley have relatively similar and strong tenant protections. But Berkeley has been using a rental register for many years, which has enabled city employees to better communicate with landlords and tenants, enforce policies, and get a sense of how expensive it is to live there, said Matt Brown, acting director of the Berkeley Rent Board.
“We have data going back to 1980 on rental levels for the city of Berkeley,” Brown said. This database will soon expand significantly, as voters in 2020 agreed to a measure according to which all units, not just those of the rental price control, must be registered. For the first time, Berkeley will be able to determine metrics like the city’s average rent instead of relying on anecdotal reports or real estate sites just drawing on their own listings.
“It is incredibly valuable to pursue affordability,” said Brown. Such information can inform anything from minimum wage laws to homeless shelter programs.
The rental agency uses the registry to “communicate with landlords and tenants several times a year to let them know what their rents can be,” Brown said.
In both Berkeley and Oakland, tenants who live in the same building can pay very different amounts, as rents for each unit are reset when someone moves in. But Oakland doesn’t require landlords to provide the city with the addresses or rents for individual units, so there’s no easy way for housing staff to communicate directly with tenants or to determine the statutory rent.
Berkeley landlords must register all new tenancies and provide the city with the tenant’s name and contact information, the starting rental amount and date, and the utilities covered. Tenants can look up their home in an online database called My Rent Ceiling to find out the maximum rent they can be charged. (The city does not publish names of tenants or landlords.)
“That makes it a lot easier to do outreach, educate, and enforce people’s rights and responsibilities,” Brown said.