A Closer Look at Landlord Objections to the Registry

City Council in January created a registry of rental units to inventory every rental apartment that is occupied or available for rent. The registry is the foundation of the rent stabilization program. That is why landlords are trying by hook and by crook to sink it. Let’s take a closer look at the landlords’ objections.

Beverly Hills created a registry of rental units as part of an urgent response to what City Council identified as a crisis of rental housing availability and affordability in Beverly Hills. “Currently, there is a shortage of affordable housing that is available to all segments of the community both within the County of Los Angeles and specifically within the City of Beverly Hills,” Council found in January of 2017. The urgency ordinance creating the registry continued:

Studies, which were presented to the City Council and are part of the record regarding the adoption of this ordinance, have shown that there is a shortage of the number of apartment units that are available for rent and that the rents that are being charged for apartment units are increasing dramatically, especially within Southern California and within the City of Beverly Hills. - January Urgency Ordinance

It was one of several changes to the rent stabilization ordinance  steps intended to stabilize rental housing. Landlords were opposed, though, by tried by hook and by crook to tank it. Despite landlord opposition the registry was reaffirmed in February and April (unanimously each time) and given concrete form in June when Council approved the registry form. (Read Rental Unit Registry: The Foundation of Rent Stabilization for more background on the process.)

Registration Form

The registry requires that property owners, on record and under oath, disclose information regarding the owner, the tenancy, and the rent paid. No tenant names or descriptive information is collected. There are three key aspects to the information requested:

  • Property owners are asked to disclose their ownership interest;
  • Identify the property manager (if in-house) or the management company (if different from the owner);
  • Document the housing services (like utilities and parking) that are provided to tenants in each unit; and,
  • Describe the end date to a tenancy and the cause behind the vacancy.

These data points are common to every rent-stabilization program. The locality needs to know when a unit is vacated and what the basic terms of tenancy are for the new tenant. Also it may be useful to know if it is occupied by an owner, relative, or a resident manager. The registry is the way we know if a unit has been unlawfully removed from the rental market, which can push up rents for remaining units.

Have a look at the registry form. It is foremost about the operation of a the leasing business.

registration form: property information

In fact, most of the information requested by the registry form is already public knowledge or is accessible elsewhere else (including business tax or property tax records). Here is the form showing only fields that ask for information not previously reported by rental business owners.

Landlords’ Arguments

Landlords balked loudly at the prospect of providing this information to the city. They claimed it is confidential or proprietary; and that demanding it is an infringement of their tenants’ privacy. Local landlord Harvey Miller (pictured above) has led the charge against the registry, including backing a lawsuit to invalidate it.

The registry asks nothing of tenants except to verify the rent reported by the landlord. No tenant fills out a registration form and no tenant provides any information to the registry whatsoever — not tenant name, occupation, income, age or any other personal detail. (Read more: Rental Unit Registration: What Does It Mean for Tenants?)

Nor do the claims of ‘proprietary’ or ‘confidential’ information ring true. In our facilitated table dialogue with the property owners, none could offer any specific reason for withholding from the registry the information that they say is currently available from other sources like business licenses, county assessor records or public websites.

Landlords simply don’t want the information collected, period. They don’t want the city in their business. The reason appears twofold: the registry is first and foremost an accountability tool; and the less information available about landlords the better it is for landlords. As one rental housing business owner said, “It should be on the tenant to find out” if a landlord evicts frequently or has been found to harass tenants.

There is no infringement on privacy. The city asks only what kind of tenant is occupying a given unit — the owner, a manager or used for some other purpose — but not who is the tenant or any other information that would identify the household. The form also asks about section 8 vouchers because subsidy is a public interest concern. And it asks about services included with the apartment.

registration form: tenancy information

The Sacred Cow: Actual Rent Amounts

The registry also asks the landlord to provide the actual rent for each unit. This is the one piece of information they were most resistant to provide! The city needs to know the actual rent for each unit because it is 1) required to administer a rent-stabilization program; and 2) because the state requires it to be provided (and public) wherever there is rent control.

The Civil Code, in fact, mandates that permissible rents be made public (only upon request, however) when established. “The record of permissible rent levels is a public record for purposes of the California Public Records Act” – Section 1947.8(f). Stated plainly!;

Landlords have wheeled out a variety of arguments to avoid disclosure of the actual rents.

The information is already available. “We already provide that as part of business license,” one business owner said. But that too is disingenuous: not all landlords are actually licensed to do business, as it turns out, and the tax rolls are not necessarily an accurate reflection of rents charged. And if the licenses did accurately reflect those rents, wouldn’t the business owners fight to keep it secret? Of course!

Tenants will be at each other’s throats if they know their neighbor’s rent. Nonsense. As it happens I do know my neighbors’ rents. We compared them when our landlord handed all of us near-10% increases for two years running. Of course we talked!

It’s confidential. “I don’t want my new tenant to know what I charged my old tenant,” one landlord said. But another rebutted that claim: “Go on Zillow – it’s all there.” (The website posts estimated rents.)

Perhaps the opposition to reporting the rents is that a documented rent allows the city to identify unlawful rent increases. Additionally, identifying the permissible rent gives city analysts actual data on housing costs so that we can accurately calibrate relocation fees (among other things).

In sum, the landlords’ arguments are both self-serving and obfuscating. Self-serving because each serves to kick a leg out from under the registry. (Since when does your landlord care about your privacy?) And obfuscating because all of the arguments work toward the ultimate goal of non-disclosure.

That’s why our tenants committee put the registry among our top concerns. From the committee’s position statement presented at dialogue #5:

Registry. The Committee strongly endorses the Registry, which is required to properly determine the property owners adherence to laws and regulations. We believe it is imperative that the registry database also contain information about the landlord’s performance: information concerning complaints against the landlord for violation of habitability standards, code violations, lawsuits filed against him, all of which should be a matter of public record and that enable a prospective tenant to make an informed choice whether or not to do business with that landlord.

As one property owner said at dialogue #3, “We’ve been getting away with murder in Beverly Hills for a long time.” Let’s hope the registry changes that.