Coastal metros and small Midwestern cities may not seem to have a lot in common. Yet one simple tool could drastically improve housing in both types of communities: a rental registry. In fact, all but the smallest of rural towns would benefit from implementing a registry.
The development of successful rental housing businesses in any size community is an important factor to the economic health and well-being of that community. Streamlining communications and automating interactions between city agencies and housing providers is critical in the support of the community’s successful rental housing industry.
Online rental registries provide a convenient, safe, and secure system for property owners to register their rental properties with the city. Additionally, rental housing providers can receive real-time important information about their property rights and responsibilities, and interact safely online with housing, police, and fire agencies.
The rental registry also offers housing providers the means to update important emergency information such as; property manager and owner contact information, access their government-issued notices and forms, report rental vacancy rates, and pay fees online. The concept may be simple, but rental registry benefits are wide-ranging.
Registries implemented by a housing department or similar agency give officials a better sense of their community’s housing stock, empowering them to better manage code enforcement, tenant protections, and the implementation of fair-housing and grant programs.
According to Shelterforce, rental registries have already been adopted in cities across the country, including eight in California, 20 in Texas, and in Raleigh, Buffalo, Syracuse, Minneapolis, and Seattle. But many more cities would benefit from the implementation of a rental registry, providing immense value to the community as a whole, housing and community development staff, tenants, and even property owners.
Improved Housing for Tenants
The people helped most by the implementation of a rental registry are those seeking rental housing. Most cities have a variety of ordinances to provide the public with housing that’s safe, fair, and affordable. But ensuring compliance with these ordinances is difficult to do without an accurate picture of a community’s rental property inventory.
When no registry exists, it’s much easier for properties to slip through the cracks or for problematic trends to go unnoticed for far too long. When that happens, it’s the tenants who pay the price with unsafe living conditions, unfair rental practices, and even homelessness.
One example of how rental registries support safer housing can be found in Buffalo. The city adopted its registry in 2005 in order to track problem properties and absentee landlords while aiding code enforcement. More than 15 years later, the information and data the registry has provided is undoubtedly one of the most valuable tools in the city’s current effort to combat lead contamination in up to 85,000 homes in the city. Buffalo is now working to expand ordinances dealing with inspections and owner reporting – an effort that will surely be made easier with the full record of rental units that the registry provides.
Better Visibility for Housing Managers & Agencies
As we’ve discussed, rental registries provide local government and housing agencies with an accurate understanding of the rental housing market they work in. With recurring filing requirements for property owners, that view of the rental market remains up-to-date, with all data points funneling into a single system.
Without this full view of a community’s rental housing market, those making decisions are largely left in the dark. In San Francisco, District Supervisor Matt Haney noted that they “have to look to Zillow and Craigslist for this information,” noting that it was “ridiculous.” Fortunately, San Francisco recently passed new legislation for a rental registry (which they refer to as a ‘housing inventory’) to be rolled out in 2022.
This is just common sense. The fact that SF does not have accurate information on rents and vacancies and we have to look to Zillow and Craigslist for this information is ridiculous.— Matt Haney (@MattHaneySF) December 2, 2020
San Francisco will soon have easily accessible, accurate, and up-to-date data. And, like other cities with already-established registries, San Francisco leaders and rental housing program managers will be better prepared to do things like:
- Educate and interact with housing providers
- Improve compliance with rent-related ordinances
- Better manage eviction programs
- Perform property inspections more efficiently
- Easily spot trends and opportunities for improvement
- Streamline the resolution of disputes between tenants and owners
- Simplify data-supported requests for budgeting, grants, and other funding requests
Recovering the costs of these programs can be managed through the rental registries as well. Registries can improve cost recovery rates for rental housing programs by direct invoicing though the rental registry. The data that rental registries provide can also make it easier to manage analytics for staffing and agency budget proposals.
But this begs the question: if property owners are covering the costs of rental registries through registration fees, what’s in it for them?
How Property Owners & Managers Benefit
Property owners and managers are often the most vocal opponents of rental registries. But the truth is, registries can provide a lot of value to these parties. For communities that have or are considering rental registries, there’s a substantial opportunity to make this value clear and increase buy-in.
Some of the most substantial benefits include:
- Convenience. Property owners, property managers, and others may access electronically stored business documents, forms, invoices, receipts, and other information online 24/7. Thus, removing the hassle of traveling to the housing agency headquarters to get copies of notices or request time extensions.
- Payments. Online payments make it simple to understand and keep current on the sometimes numerous fees related to owning a housing provider business.
- Partnership. Using the tools and features of a modern online rental registry allows property owners to interact with the housing agency staff in a timely, convenient manner. Scheduling appointments and inspections is easier with automated technology.
- Government forms. Who wants to fill out redundant government forms? Automation of the process means only new information is needed. Fees can be paid 24/7 and confirmation that the form and fee were properly received is now systematic and automated as well.
- Knowledge base. A knowledge base can allow property owners to search for ordinances and information 24/7. Access to financial assistance and other relevant information can be targeted and pushed out to housing providers that may qualify. For example, if a grant program is limited to properties with 10 or fewer units, only those properties will receive the information.
- Access to financial assistance. There are many government programs that offer grants, favorable loans, and other financial assistance for purposes such as updating buildings to meet current building codes. Registries make it easier to provide this aid to the owners that qualify and are in need.
- Education and compliance. The vast majority of property owners want to stay in compliance with local ordinances – nobody wants to be surprised by a fine, or worse. Rental registries can make it easier for owners to keep up with the ever-changing laws and codes and stay in compliance.
- Increased property values. Rental registries combined with rental housing inspection programs have proven to make it more likely that rental properties and the other rental housing nearby are kept up and remain in compliance with the latest building standards — increasing property values in the process.
Compounding Benefits for Whole Communities
Since housing provider business owners and their tenants make up a good portion of most communities, anything that’s mutually beneficial to both is good for the community as a whole. But there are additional high-level improvements that communities can enjoy after implementing a rental registry.
As compliance with laws and regulations increases, the entire locality can become safer, healthier, and more livable. As neighborhoods become more orderly and blight is reduced, quality of life increases, and access to housing becomes more inclusive and fair.
Even city planning can improve with the data provided by rental registries. Planners can easily see trends and understand vacancy rates. When it’s clear how tenant populations grow and change over time, it’s much easier to plan for important infrastructure like schools and transportation.
How to Ensure Your Registry Delivers
Not every community with a rental registry is able to fully enjoy the benefits we’ve covered here. So what’s the difference between a registry that works and one that falls flat? The answer is whether or not participation is mandated through an ordinance.
When registration is compulsory, all the benefits in this article are well within reach. But when it’s not, it is almost impossible to achieve enough compliance to make a real difference.
Take Syracuse, New York for example. The city established a rental registry in 2007 to help them address code violations and safety hazards. But in 2020, still 60% of the 9,000 properties that should have been registered were not on the registry. The lack of compliance was hampering the city’s efforts to accomplish the important goals set at the outset of the registry’s implementation. So, in September of 2020, the city passed new legislation barring evictions from rental homes that weren’t registered.
There are two important lessons to be learned from Syracuse. First, compliance is difficult to achieve without a legislative mandate. Second, it’s important to pass the ordinance mandating compliance first, or risk managing a largely ineffective tool for more than a decade.
Why We Need Rental Registries Now More Than Ever
As the benefits we’ve described show, rental registries have the potential to offer immense value. The recent challenges brought on by COVID-19 have only increased that potential.
The pandemic -- and the eviction moratoriums it brought with it -- has housing experts reimagining the scope of what a rental registry can do. With many tenants left confused and ill-informed about their rights by contradictory information from property owners, the government, and the press, a rental registry offers a lifeline to critical housing information. Certainly, rental registries could help to prevent illegal evictions during future crises, whether during a natural disaster, human-made emergency, or future pandemic.
The question shouldn’t be, “should a city have a rental registry?” Instead, we should be asking, “when will more communities start thriving with rental registries?”