Oakland's Rent Registry: You Do the Work AND Pay the City

Advocate, Inform, Rental Housing Magazine,

By Michelle Gamble

The Oakland City Council  voted to establish a rent  registry on June 21, 2022. The law requires owners of residential rental units subject to the Rent Adjustment Program (RAP) fee will be required to provide rental information for each covered unit on an annual basis. Rental property owners must fill out the registry online and register their units with the RAP for the first time by July 1, 2023 and then update it annually by March 1 each year. 

Late last year in 2022, the discussion of the rental registry information being requested and the way the registry got developed lacked fair analysis. Based on information requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the City Council seemed to arbitrarily decide on what information to request without doing proper due diligence to determine whether or not the requirements would place an imposition on the property owners. Since the registry must be filled out in order for property owners to increase rents or give rent increases, property owners will have no other choice than to adhere to it. 

Property owners, who don’t have the resources to fill out the information for perhaps dozens of properties, face the demand of inputting that data into the rent registry. The City Council gave no consideration to how much effort would be needed to not only gather that information, but also upload it. They issued the requirements and the deadline and left the rest up to the property owners to figure out. 

It’s not that a rent registry isn’t a valuable tool. Many experts support the creation of a rent registry. “A rent registry can have various values depending on its function and purpose,” said Yusaf Khan, head of business development at Startups Anonymous. “In general, a rent registry can help ensure that rental properties are registered and monitored, which can help improve rental conditions and protect renters. Furthermore, a rent registry can help property owners and renters identify and resolve any rental issues.” 

That description sounds acceptable, however, who benefits the most from it? Rent registries benefit city government the most. According to Ying He, a San Francisco Realtor, who is familiar with the rental registry program being implemented in San Francisco, “Most city governments have been under  a tremendous amount of fiscal pressure due to COVID in the last a few years. The number one goal for any city government was to increase revenue and balance the budget. The rent registry is considered a revenue-generating program. A quick Google search says Oakland has 94,693 rental units. At $101 per unit (per City of Oakland website), that is $9.6 million in RAP fees per year for the city of Oakland. That is recurring revenue.”

He goes on to describe the other benefits – all of which add value to city government while not appearing to give property owners any significant benefit. “The stated value of rent registry include better visibility of rental inventory for the city government and better control/tracking of rent increases.    The city will have up-to-date rent and occupancy information as well. It does provide real value to the city government in reporting and governance. There is obviously value associated with a rental registry. What does not make sense is that property owners not only have to do the work but also pay the city a fee for the work.”

Whether it is fair to require property owners to do all of this work depends on the specific requirements of the rent registry program and the benefits it provides. It’s also important to note that rent registry programs are usually mandatory, whether fair or not, as they are established by the government. Let’s emphasize: owners do the work and pay for it too. City government collects information and insight from the property owners’ provided data while at the same time collecting money from them and enlisting their labor to accomplish the task. Does that sound fair and equitable? Most people would agree it does not. 

Why wouldn’t city government like that deal? Property owners do the work, they pay for it, and the city uses it to their advantage. The City Council probably thought it was a great deal … for them! 

City staff didn't consider a work or time study to fully understand data collection and management needs. They have little perspective of the resources and costs needed to maintain the system. How would the City Council, where the majority of the members don’t own property, know whether or not what information being requested is difficult to obtain and upload? Unless they do own property, the council members wouldn’t have any real-world experience in this area to make any accurate assessment of its requirements.  

No other industry gets taken advantage of in this way. What kind of thinking went into this decision-making process? It’s called entitled thinking. The nature of entitlement when it comes to policy-making never bodes well, whether it be in public or private sectors. When leaders feel entitled then they have no qualms about placing unfair demands on property owners while also making them pay for it. That is like inviting your friend to dinner and then having that person pay for the whole meal while you order dessert without thanking them. Most people would call that behavior rude. 

Restrictive housing policies and laws that have not been vetted or studied to determine impact, invariably lead to unintended consequences. The response is that small rental property owners take more rental units off the market — further exacerbating the shortage of housing and tax revenue. When people feel entitled to something, they lose compassion and understanding. An unvetted rent registry developed by entitled thinkers won't lead to positive outcomes. 

Michelle Gamble is the editor of Rental Housing Magazine.