It's an idea that city leaders and advocates for Palo Alto's tenants say is long overdue: a rental registry of the roughly 11,400 apartments scattered throughout the city. Many landlords, however, aren't convinced it's needed.
The City Council is preparing to implement the registry later this year, reasoning it would provide staff with invaluable data about local rents and renters. Both the council and the Planning and Transportation Commission have identified the program as the necessary first step in the city's effort to support renters, who make up roughly 47% of Palo Alto's population.
"This is just data that we sorely need in the city," Commission Chair Doria Summa said during a May 31 review of the new registry.
But the new program is also creating a fissure between local tenants and landlords. During recent community meetings, dozens of property owners have publicly derided the registry as a waste of money and an unnecessary intrusion on their privacy.
Local property managers and Realtors suggested during the Wednesday hearing that the new program will do nothing to address the city's most glaring housing problem: affordability.
"Certainly, this proposal will not reduce any rents in Palo Alto but undoubtedly will lead to owners passing on costs (of participating in the registry) through increased rents to tenants," said Leannah Hunt, a local resident and Realtor.
But even if the registry won't in of itself lower rents or provide security for renters, city leaders believe it will serve as a foundation for future programs that will. The city is concurrently exploring policies to cap security deposits and expand protections from evictions beyond the requirements of the Assembly Bill 1482. And as Commissioner Keith Reckdahl pointed out, it will teach the city about its renter population so that it can focus its policies accordingly.
Then there are the practical benefits of having a list of rental properties. Anna Toledano said she struggled during the pandemic as a Stanford University graduate student to find a new apartment in Palo Alto.
"A rental registry would have been a Godsend for me in 2020," Toledano said. "I was almost forced to leave Palo Alto, something I just really didn't want to do because I couldn't find anywhere to live after the quick turnaround after having to leave my Stanford-provided sublet."
Lauren Bigelow, board chair at Palo Alto Renters Association, strongly supported "full and fast implementation" of the registry. Without one, the city has no mechanism for tracking rent hikes and enforcing state laws protecting tenants. While numerous landlords complained that the new registry would be costly and onerous to provide information for, Bigelow argued that the benefits would outweigh those costs.
"Focusing on the pain of the property owners completely glosses over the fact that many renters would love to own their own homes but can't afford to own their own homes when homes in Palo Alto start in the millions of dollars, meaning that every renter is experiencing a severe power imbalance that can potentially leave them homeless," Bigelow said.
Concerns about privacy
But for some residents and commissioners, privacy remains an issue. Hunt said that many property owners were surprised to learn in recent months that as part of the proposed registry they would have to convey all sorts of private information. Commissioner Bart Hechtman also suggested that the city refrain from collecting data about rent increases and security deposits.
"I pay a mortgage and the only person that has any business knowing how much I pay monthly is my lender," Hechtman said. "And I make an income, and the only people who have any business knowing that information are the IRS and the person who writes my check.
"I would think tenants might feel the same way about somebody telling what they pay for housing, particularly in a situation where they don't even get to consent to the disclosure of the information."
Most of his colleagues concluded, however, that the information about rents is valuable and well worth collecting. Reckdahl argued the public benefit would far outweigh the privacy concerns.
"We need to know who we're not serving, and by knowing what rent is, we know what classifications, what thresholds, are not being served by the city," Reckdahl said.
Commissioner Cari Templeton noted that information about home prices is already publicly available. As such, providing information about rental properties would not be overly burdensome, she said.
"In fact, it would be very liberating for this kind of information to be available in the registry to see who is being fleeced," Templeton said, "because I sure would want to know that."
The commission vote occurred just days before the council is set to adopt a new law that expands protections against evictions. The ordinance would prevent no-fault evictions for properties built within the past 15 years and that, as such, are not protected by AB 1482.
Another new policy that the council will consider on June 5 would limit security deposits for unfurnished apartments to one-and-a-half times the monthly rent. Like the eviction protections, the security deposit ordinance would go beyond state law, which currently limits security deposits to twice the monthly rent.
"It is currently unknown what rental unit property owners/managers charge as a security deposit for new tenancies in Palo Alto — it could be up to the maximum allowed, or less," a report from the Department of Planning and Development Services states. "The effect of this policy would be to help reduce the total move-in costs for unfurnished rental units in Palo Alto, if the maximum security deposit would otherwise be charged."