Rental Registry: The Key to Effective Rent Stabilization

The rental unit registry was unanimously approved by City Council in January to be the foundation of our rent stabilization program. The goal of he registry, City Council said, is to “preserve the City’s rental housing stock, and to protect the health, safety and welfare of tenants and the public.” Now Council is having second thoughts. If tenants don’t fight for it we will lose it – just like we lost our last chance for a registry a decade ago! Read on to learn what we can do to safeguard our only opportunity to hold bad landlords accountable.

If you attended facilitated dialogue #5 you heard property owners and tenants talking about two important issues: the rental unit registry and unit habitability.

Habitability standards establish minimum conditions that keep structures intended for habitation livable. That means adhering to health and safety standards by providing heat, hot water, reasonable security and a property free from vermin.

It should also mean that your dwelling unit not only meets our standards for quality-of-life, but that it remains in that condition long after you have leased it. And that means maintenance: fixing broken fixtures, replacing worn floor treatments and repainting to counter the everyday wear-and-tear.

Tenants and property owners during dialogue #5 reached “harmonious agreement” that keeping our homes habitable is in everyone’s mutual interest. For tenants it means a comfortable home; for landlords it is simply good business. Moreover, the city as a whole benefits when no property deteriorates.

Second, there is the registry. The registry is designed to collect information on property owners and their management companies; and to inventory the particulars of each unit and tenancy. Here’s how the January urgency ordinance described it:
Registration creation in ordinance

Before the registry, our city did not know exactly how many units there were, or how they were rented. Also the knew nothing about the housing services provided to any tenant. Now, for each existing and new tenancy, the city wants to know basics: housing services; why a vacancy occurred; and general characteristics about the tenant. Do minors or seniors (62 and older) live in the home? We have a special interest to protect these tenants and only a registry can ensure that we protect them. (For example, to ensure the proper relocation fees are paid.)

Last, the registry collects actual rent amounts because the city needs to ensure that tenants are not overcharged (or, if evicted for a higher-paying tenant, that the property owner maintains the current rent). It is about property owner accountability. But also there is city accountability too. Is the city protecting tenants’ health, safety and welfare? Is it ensuring that no bad-actor property owner cuts corners on habitability?

The registry helps us know our own housing market. At least that’s my view of the registry. The property owners have a very different view.

Landlords have pushed back strongly against any kind of business disclosure. The effort has been led by the lobbyist for the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. They claimed at dialogue #5 that the city’s request for the information was intrusive and that the information was proprietary, confidential, or even private, some said.

And landlords resist most vehemently any demand that they provide the rent amounts for their units. But our city has a legitimate interest to know, in my view, because until now the city had data at all on tenancies.

Moreover there is a legitimate interest to ensure that business licensing information is accurate. Property owners operate an ‘apartment rental or leasing’ business (there is such a licensing category) associated with the property address. Turns out that some landlords are not even licensed to operate rental housing. And some of those who are licensed likely don’t declare the entirety of their revenues for business tax purposes. (They report only ‘estimated’ rental receipts.) The city should rightly claim any tax arrears that are discovered once landlords register their properties.

There is also the matter of disclosure. As tenant representative Chuck Moffitt said to property owners at our dialogue #5, “You know absolutely everything about tenants, including how we spend our money. But we know next to nothing about you.”

Haven’t We Been Down This Road Before?

City Council adopted the rental unit registry in January as part of its urgency ordinance. According to the city staff report’s recommendation for a registry:

The goal of a Rental Registry Program is to ensure adherence with State and Local Health and Safety Codes, to preserve the City’s rental housing stock, and to protect the health, safety and welfare of tenants and the public. – January 24, 2017 staff report

The registry is already a core component of our rent stabilization program, and other localities that regulate the rental market use a registry too. But before you conclude that it is a fait accompli, please understand that our city has been on the precipice of an effective rent stabilization program in the past.

Over a decade ago the city recognized that rental housing administration needed a fix: bare-minimum habitability standards undermined health & safety. Substandard conditions went without repair. “The mere fact Code Enforcement staff is asked to respond to a complaint often places a tenant in an awkward and sometimes adversarial position with management and/or property owners,” cautioned a city staff report in November of 2006.

Inspection progam memo November 2006It continued, “A primary goal of The Program is to ensure the on-going quality, maintenance and safety of the City’s aging multi-family housing.”

Inspection progam memo excerpt November 2006On the table were “improved housing codes consistent with Beverly Hills standards” and systematic inspections to ensure that those higher habitability standards were met. In fact it was called the ‘Rental Housing Inspection Program” and was also built around a registry. The names of today’s City Manager and today’s Deputy City Manager are on that memo!

Why did this promising new program never see the light of day? The answer comes in the follow-up memo to City Council in September of 2007. Staff had been instructed by Council the prior fall to reach out for public input and they did. The Chamber of Commerce, homeowners associations and the property owners own industry association chimed in. Said the staff report: “The apartment owners association provided the most feedback based on experiences they have had with other inspection programs.”

But only two tenants spoke up. So, as the report noted dryly, “staff went back and reshaped the program.”

Inspection progam memo September 2007Out were mandatory inspections. There were no new habitability standards. Code enforcement remained complaint-driven – as “awkward and sometimes adversarial” for tenants as ever.

Inspection progam memo excerpt September 2007What happened to the anticipated program benefits like improved rental housing stock, “vibrant multifamily neighborhoods,” the identification of illegal units and the uncovering of unlicensed property owners? Gone because rent stabilization program opponents won the day in the political arena. And here we are again today!

We Have Another Chance to Get This Right

THIS TUESDAY at 7pm, the decisions that City Council makes about scope, staffing and funding will shape the protections tenants receive for the next generation and more. Will Council replay the failures of the past or follow the new course charted by the January urgency ordinance? City Council then voted unanimously for the registry and renewed that support with a unanimous vote again in April. Councilmembers then voted (again unanimously) in June to approve the registry form and put a down-payment on program funding.

We are almost there! Successful implementation of the program is dependent on the proper scope, staffing and funding and we need you to show up on TUESDAY evening or send a comment to City Council, to recommend our elected officials implement a robust rent stabilization program. Please let the Alliance know you can make it and we will get back to you with more information.

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