Landlords blast proposal to require annual report on rentals as invasion of privacy

Housing inventory could give city better data on housing vacancies, affordability

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors will vote Dec. 1 on whether to require landlords to provide information annually about approximately 230,000 rental units, including how much tenants are paying in rent or if they are vacant.

Backers of Supervisor Sandra Fewer’s proposed housing inventory legislation say it will provide crucial information to protect tenants and inform policy decisions to help address housing affordability.

But many property owners are calling it burdensome bureaucracy and an invasion of privacy.

Owners of rental properties would need to register their name and contact information with The City and provide details every year such as what rent tenants are paying, what utilities are included, square footage of the units and date of occupancy or vacancy.

Landlords and renters will pay for the new program through a surcharge on the existing $50 Rent Board fee, which is currently split between the two. The Rent Board would administer the program and hire up to 14 new staff, said the budget analyst report.

In the first year, it would cost up to $3.3 million and in subsequent years up to $2.8 million annually to operate, which results in surcharges per unit of up to $14 in the first year and then up to $12 annually.

With nine supervisors already backing the legislation, it’s expected to pass Tuesday, despite the dozens of rental property owners who called in to a recent two-hour board committee hearing to blast it.

One landlord, Roxanne Albertoli, went so far as to call it “government oppression.”

“To force rental property owners to register their property is akin to treating us as sex offenders or criminals,” Albertoli told the committee. “What right do you have to single out rental property owners as needing special surveillance? Because we are more productive than other people? So we have to be watched?”

Other rental property owners said it flew in the face of the 2018 voter-approved Privacy First Policy, or would lead to animosity among tenants if they knew their neighbors who had been living there longer were paying a lot less as a result of rent control.

But Kristy Wang, a planning policy director with the think-tank SPUR, told the San Francisco Examiner that while the Planning Department tracks some housing information, Fewer’s proposal “would help build out better data on the housing stock and how it is occupied,” improving enforcement and planning decisions.

“For example, back in 2014, SPUR attempted to better understand vacancies and non-primary residences in San Francisco, and census data on vacancy was the best we had and not very informative,” Wang said. “Data from a rental registry like this would help policymakers better understand trends in rent and occupancy to create effective and meaningful legislation.”

The Council of Community Housing Organizations, a group of affordable housing developers, is backing the proposal, citing similar benefits.

“Not only is it an important ‘information tool’ about citywide housing supply long overdue for a city of the size and sophistication of San Francisco, but it will also be very valuable to informing even better policies to help increase housing supply and to address specific gaps in housing affordability going forward,” Peter Cohen, the group’s co-director, told the Examiner.

Cynthia Fong, who in 2016 joined the Housing Rights Committee, a tenant advocacy group, told the committee, “One of my first questions as an organizer in the Richmond was: How much do people actually pay in rent around here and why are there so many vacant units?’ It’s more important than ever to have complete data to understand the depth and nature of our affordability crisis,” Fong said. “Simply knowing what average market rate rents are is not enough.”

The proposal will require information of those units covered by the Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Ordinance, which the budget analyst estimates totals approximately 233,518 units.

Information that must get reported annually to the Rent Board includes square footage and number of bedrooms and bathrooms in the unit; whether it is vacant or occupied; the date the unit became vacant or occupied; the base rent, as well as what utilities are included.

Fewer has made an amendment to the initial proposal to phase in the reporting requirements based on the size of the building.

Owners of buildings with 10 or more units must report the information by July 1, 2022 and then by March 1 in subsequent years. Owners of buildings with less than 10 units must start reporting the information by March 1, 2023.

Rent Board Executive Director Robert Collins acknowledged it was a significant undertaking for his department but that he collaborated with Fewer to make it work, including amending the proposal to give more time to smaller property owners who may need “more hand-holding through this whole process.”

“We are all envisioning a system where you would register online,” Collins said. “Hopefully, for most people, it would just be entirely done through a portal.”

Fewer is leaving office in January and this would be one of her lasting final acts in office, but she noted she herself is a property owner and landlord in San Francisco.

“I don’t think having to fill out a form about my rental units on an annual basis is going to cause me to not want to own property or be a landlord anymore,” she said. “This is not a punishment for landlords or an invasion of privacy. This inventory is only collecting information about housing units, not about the people who live in them.”

Fewer also said landlords’ concerns about cost were not valid.

“This small additional cost of $5 to $12 per unit, which can be split 50-50 between tenants and landlords, is well worth the benefit of finally having a comprehensive inventory of our rental housing stock,” she said.

Fewer’s responses to the concerns didn’t assuage many property owners, including groups like the San Francisco Apartment Association, which remains opposed to it.

Noni Richen, president of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute, said in a statement to the Examiner that the proposal “makes no sense in California, where vacancy control is forbidden.”

“This scheme will add millions of dollars of expenses in added employees and office space for the Rent Board and produces nothing of value,” Richen said. “It requires reporting of a lot of private information about buildings, owners, and renters.”

She also said, “We will ask our member owners to post the forms they submit in the lobbies of their buildings so all of the renters can see how much everyone is paying for rent.”

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