Apartment buildings in Oakland with tenants who are suing Mosser
Oakland is considering collecting and sharing more information about apartments and rents in the city. Credit: Amir Aziz

If you’re a tenant in Oakland, there are laws that spell out how much your landlord is allowed to charge you for monthly rent, when they can and can’t evict you, and what steps you can take if they harass you.

But which of these protections applies to you depends on what kind of building you live in. Right now, the only way to find out if and how you’re protected by Oakand’s rent control policies is to have some familiarity with the set of complicated state and local housing laws, or to know someone who does. 

That’s one of the reasons why many tenants and supporters want Oakland to create a “rental registry,” a database of every rental unit in the city. Many rent-controlled cities, like Berkeley and San Francisco, have such a database. 

Registries vary in the types of information they track, typically including the addresses of all rental units that are subject to a policy like rent control, and the actual or legal rent prices for each apartment. Sometimes they note whether an apartment is currently occupied or vacant, who owns it, or whether previous renters have been evicted. Sometimes these registries are publicly accessible online, and sometimes the records are kept internally by cities.

There is no rental registry for Oakland, but staff from the city’s Rent Adjustment Program (RAP) have been studying the possibility of launching one and plan on presenting initial findings to the City Council this summer. Ultimately, the council would need to give approval for the city to create the database.

Currently, all Oakland landlords are required to register the addresses of their properties in order to receive a business license, and they must pay $101 special fee per rent-controlled unit they own. This money is dedicated to administering the Rent Adjustment Program, or RAP, which handles disputes between tenants and landlords and manages the city’s rental housing laws. Oakland landlords do not need to provide addresses for each individual unit they manage or what they’re charging for rent. 

At a March meeting of the council, Chanée Franklin Minor, RAP director, called a registry the “final component to creating a truly active rent control program.” 

“We’re charged with making sure that rents are stable and excessive rents aren’t charged, and that people aren’t leaving because of that,” she said. “We’re unable to do that if we’re not tracking rents—if we don’t have a system to do what we’re tasked to do.”

But many landlords are wary of what they consider yet another bureaucratic imposition. Some are concerned about releasing too much data about their business publicly. Others are concerned that the registry might require them to pay another fee. And in some cities, rent registries come with steep penalties for failing to register your unit: inability to collect rent or to evict, for example.

State Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, who represents parts of Oakland, has repeatedly tried to pass a law requiring a statewide rental registry. Each time she does, landlord and real estate interest groups like the California Apartment Association lobby against it. Wicks’ third rent registry bill just died in the assembly, meaning she will have to reintroduce it next session for it to have another chance. 

But Oakland renters and tenant-friendly members of the City Council have signaled that they want to push ahead with a local registry soon.

Renters say they deserve basic information about their rights

When renters come to counseling sessions held by the Oakland Tenants Union (OTU), they often want to know whether they’re covered by the city’s rent-control policy, in order to figure out whether their landlord is overcharging them.

Under Oakland rent control, landlords can set rents at whatever price they want when a tenant moves in, but they can only raise the rent by a small percentage each year after that. Not all renters receive these protections, though. A state law called the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act excludes all buildings constructed after 1995, or the year a local ordinance was passed—1983, in Oakland’s case—from rent control. It also says single-family homes can’t be rent-controlled. 

“Most people don’t know offhand” when their apartment was built, said Emily Wheeler, an OTU member who advises tenants. Counselors like Wheeler don’t always know what to tell them, even when they figure out the construction year. There are cases when landlords may have received exemptions from rent control even though an apartment was built before 1983 or, conversely, a unit may look like it’s an exempt single-family home but is technically considered an apartment building. A registry would eliminate the mystery.

Tenants covered by rent control also receive other housing and eviction protections in Oakland, so knowing the status of your building can make a big difference.

“As a tenant myself, if I ever wanted to move someplace, a rent registry would make it easier for me to find out if a place is covered,” said Mark Dias, OTU co-chair. “People should know that basic level of information about where they’re living.” 

Single family homes in Deep East Oakland
If Oakland creates a rental registry, it will likely include only units subject to rent control, not newer apartments or single-family homes. Credit: Amir Aziz

Dias and Wheeler said the dataset will only be complete, however, if it includes rent-controlled units plus all others, including apartments in new, high-end buildings, and single-family homes operated as rental housing. 

According to RAP staff, the registry under consideration would include only rent-controlled housing.

“I’m concerned it’s not going to be comprehensive,” Dias said. “Oakland has a lot of unhoused folk, and it would be nice to know how many properties on the market right now are not being rented out for whatever reason.”

But even if the registry covers only rent-controlled properties, the database would dramatically increase the potential for enforcement of that policy. Currently, the onus is on tenants to file a complaint with the Rent Adjustment Program if they believe they’ve been given an illegal rent increase. With the registry, city staff could easily identify violations themselves and proactively contact landlords—who in many cases may be unfamiliar with the policy and may have made an honest mistake.

Landlords fear government overreach

Derek Barnes, who represents local landlords as the CEO of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, doesn’t oppose a basic rental registry.

“Simply put, it’s a way to register the business you’re doing in the city—in this case providing rental housing—and somehow approving your credentials to do that.” he said. 

Beyond that, “it really depends on the kind of information they’re collecting,” he said. “How invasive it is, how intrusive, how onerous, and how frequently it’s collected. It can start to snowball into this huge data collection effort.” 

Landlords in some cities, including San Jose, have sued over privacy concerns related to registries, and sometimes they’re supported by renters. These concerns mainly come up in cities that collect or publicly disclose the names of both landlords and tenants.

Property owners are also aware of the extra work it would take for the city to create and continually manage a database of every Oakland rental. “Someone’s paying for that,” said Barnes. Landlords fear they’ll be asked to foot the bill for the registry on top of the fees and taxes already required of them. In addition to the RAP fee paid by landlords with rent-controlled units, all landlords must pay Oakland’s business license tax, which is about $14 for every $1,000 they take in.

“The idea of adding additional areas of compliance and demands really sets off a lot of housing providers,” Barnes said. “It impairs our ability to run our businesses. Housing providers are sensitive to the tendency to overreach, and the government telling them how to run their business where that might not be the case in other industries.”

He said the registry concept would be more palatable to landlords if they receive “value” from it, and if they’re able to use it to “mitigate risk,” for example by getting notified when they’re about to be up for mandatory inspections.

How do rent registries work in other cities?

Oakland and Berkeley have relatively similar, and strong, tenant protections. But Berkeley has used a rent registry for many years, enabling city staff 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 about what rent levels are for the city of Berkeley,” Brown said. That database will soon expand greatly because in 2020 voters approved a measure requiring all units, not just those subject to rent control, to 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 that draw from only their own listings.

“It’s incredibly valuable to track affordability,” said Brown. Such information can inform everything from minimum wage laws to homeless housing programs.

The Rent Board 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, renters who live in the same building can be paying wildly different amounts, because rents are reset for each unit when someone new moves in. But Oakland doesn’t require landlords to tell the city the addresses or rents for individual units, so there’s no easy way for housing staff to communicate directly with renters or to determine what the legal rent is. 

Landlords in Berkeley are required to register all new tenancies, telling the city the name and contact information for the tenant, the initial rent level and start date, and utilities covered. Tenants can look up their unit in an online database called My Rent Ceiling, to find out the maximum they’re allowed to be charged for rent. (The city doesn’t post tenant or landlord names.)

“That makes it much easier to do outreach and education, and for people to enforce their rights and responsibilities,” Brown said.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.