Being a landlord is a unique line of work. In few sectors can someone assume so much responsibility with so little training.
In most cases, a downpayment and a good credit score is all it takes to buy and begin managing a rental property, the place where tenants eat, sleep, play, raise their children, and—increasingly—work. Because the bar to entry is so low, many landlords are unaware of their responsibilities, or they are actively malicious and exploitative; they may increase rents beyond legal limits or make unenforceable eviction threats, for example, and they often get away with it because tenants typically know even less about their rights. Most decisions that landlords make about their tenants’ housing situations are never approved, reviewed, or even witnessed by an outside party. It’s a system designed for abuse.
As renters face illness and job loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a confusing patchwork of state and local eviction protections is the only thing staving off homelessness for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of vulnerable households. Despite the importance of these protections, public officials lack real-time data to know whether landlords are complying with the rules or flouting them—not just for recent eviction protections, but also pre-existing regulations like building code requirements and rent control.
As a result, enforcement is spotty at best. A National Housing Law Project survey found that 91 percent of legal aid and civil rights attorneys reported that they have witnessed illegal evictions in their area. The solution to this problem is a rental registry, a simple online tool to track basic information about rental housing and the treatment of tenants. With minimal cost and hassle, rental registries can add much-needed transparency to the landlord-tenant relationship, keeping landlords accountable and helping renters stay safe and stable in their homes.
Rental registries already exist in cities across the country, including Raleigh, Seattle, Minneapolis, eight cities in California, and at least 20 in Texas. The costs on the city’s end are modest. San Francisco recently estimated a $300,000 startup cost with annual costs of around $1.7 million to $3.6 million per year. Most existing registries were created only to support code enforcement activities, but a simple set of requirements could allow them to do much more.
Unsurprisingly, all rental registries start with registration. Landlords must usually register each unit separately and provide their contact information to the city. Because most registries were created to support inspections, this is often the only information required—but it shouldn’t be. At a minimum, landlords should also be required to report the monthly rent due for each unit, when the rent was last increased, whether parking or utilities are included in the rent, and when the tenant first moved into the unit. Cities currently lack this information, making it impossible to accurately measure affordability or track vacancies over time. Requiring information like rent and utility costs also establishes a record of the basic terms of the lease agreement, making it more challenging for landlords to revoke or alter them with impunity. Landlords must also include their contact information so they can be easily reached by the local housing agency for periodic inspections or to respond to complaints.
But rental registries could do much more. In places with existing registries, they should be expanded so that tenants can create their own account linked to their home (likely with some form of address verification) and have access to the information provided by their landlords. In places that haven’t yet established a registry, this function should be provided on day one. Allowing tenant registration would provide a check on claims made by the landlord about rent, lease terms, etc., and it would give tenants a direct line to the local housing agency, and the housing agency a direct line to tenants. Ideally, tenants would have access to basic information about the protections they enjoy, tailored to the type of home they reside in (e.g., a single-family home or an apartment, which may offer different protections), and local officials could push out important information to tenants when necessary, as with the rapidly evolving response to coronavirus and the resulting economic and eviction crisis.
Rental registries should also require landlords to provide notice whenever a tenant’s rent is increased or an eviction is threatened or filed. This should include a copy of the written notice that was sent to the tenant. This does not mean that rent increases or eviction filings need to be approved, or even reviewed, by the local government; the goal is transparency and accountability, not absolute control. Rental registries are not widely used to facilitate tenant outreach or landlord oversight, but they should be.
Landlords often send their tenants unenforceable notices, including illegal rent hikes or evictions, or inform them only verbally of these changes, hoping that tenants will comply without raising a fuss. They are frequently rewarded for these efforts when tenants vacate without asserting their rights, and even if they’re caught the penalties are usually minor. A rental registry would establish a common understanding that all changes to tenancy status must be reported to the registry, allowing both the tenant and the government—via random checks, or when following up on a complaint—to verify that the notice sent to the tenant matches the notice found in the registry. If a tenant received a notice to vacate but couldn’t find it in the registry, the notice would be considered null and void and the landlord would be subject to a hefty fine. If the tenant was told by their landlord that their rent was going up 10 percent, but only a 3 percent increase was reported to the government, a complaint could be filed and, again, a sizable fine levied.
For landlords who always follow the rules, the only burden of a rental registry would be a small annual fee (in Los Angeles it costs just $24.51 per year per unit) and the time associated with reporting unit information and changes to tenancy status. Other cities have instituted fees ranging from $50 per year per unit in Santa Monica to $250 a year in Berkeley. Reporting could be made quick and convenient by providing simple online forms for routine activities such as rent increases, where the landlord need only check a box and input the percentage increase and new lease rate. For less scrupulous landlords, the impacts would be severe. They would, in effect, be forced to tell on themselves every time they violated a tenant’s rights. That’s precisely the point.
Los Angeles is one of the many cities that have approved rental registries in the past several years; and, as expected it faced heavy opposition from landlords. In a February 2016 meeting of the city council’s housing committee, 45 people provided public comment—about half of them opposed the proposal—with many expressing concerns over tenant privacy issues. Yet at this same meeting nearly a dozen tenant organizations showed up in support of the registry. Shortly after the ordinance was approved 14-0 by a city council populated by several landlords, the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles sued. The lawsuit failed and the registry is still in effect today. There have been broader efforts to expand the use of registries, with California Assembly member Buffy Wicks advancing legislation for a statewide rental registry each of the past two years, though both bills were defeated by apartment-industry lobbyists. Apartment owners argue that rental registries are a costly imposition and an invasion of privacy for tenants and landlords alike. But privacy concerns can be easily resolved by omitting more sensitive information like tenant names and household size—requiring the former has gotten San Jose into legal trouble over its new registry program—and it’s clear from the experience of cities like Los Angeles that tenant advocates are on the side of rental registries, not against them. Landlords, meanwhile, are not a credible representative of tenant interests. The rampant abuse of eviction protections during the COVID-19 pandemic is evidence enough that stronger oversight is needed.
Tenant protections are an indispensable tool for housing stability, but protections are only as good as the enforcement on which they depend. Rental registries can be an effective, efficient means of increasing transparency and improving accountability in the rental housing market. The need for better enforcement has never been clearer, and state and local governments should take the lead by adopting registries of their own.