The database would include most rental housing built before 1995. Credit: Amir Aziz

Say a renter in Oakland believes they’ve been charged an unfair amount, in violation of the city’s rent control law. Right now, they’d have to file a complaint with the city in order to challenge the price. 

That process can take months and require a hearing where both the landlord and tenants have to show proof of what’s been charged.

City housing staffers are proposing a system that would remove the need for those hearings in many cases: a registry of rental housing in Oakland that would allow tenants, landlords, and policymakers to see just how much is being charged in rent—and whether those amounts are legal.

The database would boost transparency and awareness of housing laws, proponents say. Some property owners argue it’s a privacy violation.

Owners of buildings covered by the city’s rent control or eviction policies—most rental housing built before 1995—would be required to register each unit with the city annually. They’d have to provide the addresses of each unit and names and emails for the tenants, as well as tenant start date, the initial rent and the last increase, housing services provided, and the reason for the last vacancy, such as an eviction.

If a property owner did not register a unit, they’d be prohibited from petitioning for rent increases beyond the standard amount—for example, the ability to charge a tenant for the cost of a renovation. They would also be barred from evicting tenants in those units in almost all cases.

“A registry allows owners to easily calculate rent increases and allows tenants to verify them,” said Allison Pretto, project manager with the Rent Adjustment Program (RAP), at a meeting of the City Council’s Community & Economic Development Committee on Tuesday. “All of these mechanisms work together to increase transparency and compliance with rent laws.” 

Tenants and landlords don’t always know whether their unit is covered by Oakland’s complex rent control policies, and a registry would allow them to check. 

Many cities with rent control, including Berkeley, Richmond, and San Francisco, have rental registries. Oakland staffers said a registry would enable the city to communicate crucial rental information to tenants and property owners for the first time. Currently, landlords have to register each property once, but they don’t have to provide addresses for the individual units or information about rents, making it difficult for the city to reach residents.

In 2021, the City Council allocated $500,000 for Oakland to explore developing a registry. The report and ordinance recommendation presented at Tuesday’s meeting was the culmination of that effort, which included hiring a fellow to research other cities’ registries.

Several landlords called into the meeting to oppose what some called an “invasive” proposal and “government over-control,” saying the registration process would add to a list of arduous and expensive steps they already have to take to run a rental business in Oakland. 

“I’ve seen more and more requirements made of me,” said property owner Ann McClain. “There’s an existing program where [tenants] can go if they have problems,” she said, referring to RAP and legal aid organizations.

Other landlords warned of the privacy risk to tenants of collecting their names and addresses in one central, online database. 

“Public-facing information would be limited to very high-level information,” responded RAP manager Chanée Franklin Minor. Tenants and landlords would have access to the same detailed information about their own units, whereas the public would see only aggregate data, like average rent prices for each ZIP code. In Berkeley, by contrast, the public registry allows anyone to look up tenant start dates and allowable rents for any unit in the city.

Despite Oakland’s less comprehensive public database, most information would still be accessible through a public records request. But Minor said those laws already require the city to redact tenants’ personal details. Business and property owner names are already public record, on the other hand.

City Councilmember Loren Taylor, who noted he’s been both a tenant and a property owner, said the data collection would be a boon for policymakers. Without a registry, there’s an “immense knowledge gap” around rent prices and displacement in Oakland, according to staff.

“We’ve been making policies blind,” Taylor said at the meeting, noting that property owners often accuse the city of passing tenant protection laws that aren’t based on a thorough understanding of the rental housing landscape.

Proponents of a registry also believe the database would lift a burden off tenants to notice when they’re being exploited. The current system, where tenants have to file a complaint with the city if they think they’re being overcharged, privileges those with the education or language skills to have a grasp on city law, staff said.

“The most vulnerable members of the population are far more likely to experience unlawful rent increases and the resulting risk of eviction,” said housing staff in their report.

However, property owners said the registry system would put some small landlords in a vulnerable position too. If they fail to realize they’re required to register their units, they’ll find themselves unable to exercise their right to apply certain rent increases or evict their tenants.

The full City Council will take up the rental registry ordinance on June 7. If it’s passed, the city will need to hire a software developer to create the database, a $300,000 endeavor that RAP says could be funded with its surplus budget. After that, the city estimates it could take $50,000 annually to monitor the system.

RAP said extensive outreach would be conducted to educate property owners before the change goes into effect in early 2023.
The council will vote on another controversial rent measure on May 31—capping allowable rent increases at 3% annually, a response to tenants facing a 6.7% inflation-based increase this year, the largest ever.

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.