Protections for residential tenants have long been a hot topic in Palo Alto, where 46% of the residents are renters and where sky-high rents have contributed to what city leaders often refer to as a housing emergency.
But while the City Council agreed in February to expand some programs for renters, including one that makes more tenants eligible for relocation assistance, its members have struggled to reach consensus on more aggressive measures such as rental stabilization, which limits how much landlords can increase rent in a given year.
Council members did, however, agree at that time that the best way to get to decisions on rent stabilization and other potentially divisive topics would be to launch a rental registry that would track rental properties and keep track of evictions, rents, rent increases and other pertinent data.
On Tuesday, the city took its first step toward that endeavor when the council's Policy and Services Committee discussed the parameters of the new program and agreed by a 2-1 vote to apply it to every rental property, including single-family homes and accessory dwelling units. The committee reached the decision despite arguments by its dissenting member, council member Greg Tanaka, and some landlords that such a registry would prove too burdensome for landlords.
Committee Chair Greer Stone, himself a renter, made a case for the new registry by pointing at his personal experience. Earlier this year, numerous residents from his Midtown apartment building were evicted by the property owner, Spieker Companies. Stone said that had the registry existed at the time, the city would have been aware of the eviction proceedings and it may have acted quicker to assist the tenants.
"By the time the city was able to kind of react to it, so many tenants had been removed and many of them appeared to be either illegally removed or in a way that they weren't able to get some services," Stone said.
The creation of the registry program was also endorsed by the Planning and Transportation Commission, which reviewed a suite of policies on tenant protections earlier this year and named the registry as a top priority. The Tuesday discussion was the first in a series of public hearings that the council committee is scheduled to have on the program before it moves to the council for approval. Staff from the Department of Planning and Development Services hope to have the registry in place by the end of 2023.
Palo Alto is hardly the only city to seek more information about its renters. East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Berkeley, Alameda and San Francisco are among the cities in the region that already have rental survey programs, while Oakland is preparing to launch one this year, according to data compiled by [email protected], a nonprofit that advocates for more housing.
The proposed registry has seen some modification since it was first proposed. Initially focused on cost-burdened residents in apartment buildings, the program has been expanded to also include accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and single-family homes that are being rented out. Planning Director Jonathan Lait said the additional components were included to help "inform other policy discussions that would go above and beyond the cost-burdened groups." This would include information on how accessory dwelling units are being used and whether these dwellings could potentially qualify as "affordable housing" in the context of regional housing mandates.
"We have a pretty good record of multifamily buildings that we can find out pretty easily, but there's probably a number of ADUs we don't know about," Lait said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Palo Alto had about 11,423 rental units in 2020. Of those, about 20.9% are located in properties with 50 or more units and 25.3% are single-family homes. The remainder are located in smaller apartment buildings, duplexes, triplexes, attachments to homes and mobile homes.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled about the new program. Anil Babbar, senior vice president of local public affairs for the California Apartment Association, argued at Tuesday's meeting that the new registry would be burdensome and costly to administer and that it would violate the privacy of tenants and landlords.
"This rent data is very competitive information, and neighboring buildings would love to know what the neighboring rents are for in-place tenants given this tight and competitive rental market," Babbar said.
Marcus Wood, property manager at Hohbach Property, also opposed the program and suggested that the city doesn't know what problem it's trying to solve.
"Do we think landlords are going to be evil and gouge people? I don't think it's in any landlord's interests. They want to keep tenants and they want to collect rent," Wood said.
Tanaka concurred with the critics and argued that the new survey program would create "rigorous" compliance issues that would require landlords to hire staff to fulfill the requirements and to pass down the costs of the compliance work to tenants. Some landlords, he suggested, may opt to simply stop renting out their rooms or apartments because of the survey requirements.
"I didn't think we'd do something so heavy-handed," Tanaka said.
But Stone and council member Alison Cormack both voted to support the program, with Cormack also suggesting that planning staff return with suggestions about how the registry data will be used.
"We don't know what we don't know," Cormack said. "And I think we really have to move from personal experiences to understanding what is happening more broadly in the community. And I think this is one way that we're going to do this."