While Santa Ana officials consider sending their historic, 2021 citywide rent control law to voters on a ballot measure next year, City Hall is grappling with implementing and enforcing it.
Namely, staff are still putting together a citywide database to keep track of who is – and who isn’t – abiding by the city’s 3% cap on annual rental increases on buildings constructed before 1995.
The database is expected to include information on a housing unit’s address, its occupants, and the initial and current amounts they pay in rent.
As a result, even the manner in which the law is being executed has sparked debate between rent control supporters and opponents on the City Council.
At council members’ Oct. 17 meeting, Mayor Valerie Amezcua requested a presentation on the new citywide rental unit registry system, citing concerns she said she heard from property owners about the database infringing on people’s privacy.
The law requires that all landlords in town register their rental units and provide information about the unit’s address, unit number, property type, ownership type, occupant type, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, tenancy start date, initial rent, current rent, and the tenant head-of-household’s full name – as well as their phone number, email address and preferred language.
Under the registry, landlords are also required to pay a $100 fee for each unit processed, unless they successfully claim an exemption.
City staff has been working to get units registered since August, sending letters to property owners and holding multilingual workshops about the registry process.
Fees likely won’t be collected until January of 2024, by which time staff are hoping to have gathered enough information to build the registry.
In response to Amezcua’s concerns, staff members during the meeting described “false claims” being circulated in the public that the city was asking for lease agreements, social security and employer identification numbers, or information “unrelated to compliance with the ordinance.”
Staff said they’re not asking for any of those records, and only require contact, name and preferred language information of the tenant head-of-household – or the household’s co-head – and not that of other family members, if there are any.
“We are not collecting information on every tenant or occupant in the rental unit,” said Mike Garcia, director of the Community Development Agency and former Santa Ana council member.
Amezcua also raised concerns on the potential for a data breach.
Garcia, during his presentation, said the data will be encrypted “in transit” and “at rest” – that the data will be restricted to authorized users and “not publicly accessible.”
The mayor said she appreciated staff remarks that “there’s never been a breach” in other rental registry cities, like Los Angeles and Oakland — “well, ‘never’ is not a promise, there can be a breach. Microsoft, big companies, and the government have had a breach.”
“’Never’ is — I wouldn’t use that word. Because breaches do occur.”
Recently, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s office fell victim to a cyberattack that impacted an unspecified “portion” of its data system.
Amezcua questioned whether landlords would, under the law, get the consent of tenants to share their names and contact information in registering their units with the city.
Garcia said the city “is not requiring landlords to obtain consent from a tenant to provide their information in our rental registry.”
Councilmember Thai Viet Phan, who helped spearhead the 2021 law, said the law requires landlords to inform tenants of their city rent protections – “The landlord should be notifying tenants of requirements to comply with the rental registry and other provisions related to the ordinance.”
Anti-rent control council members Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza continued to criticize the laws as approved “hastily” by the pro-rent control council majority while leaving issues like the cost and implementation to be sorted out after its adoption.
“Now that it’s law and you got the sweet headline, take the next few years to figure out what it means,” Penaloza said.
Bacerra criticized the rental registry over what he called its “assumptions”-based funding strategy – one assuming 100% compliance by landlords in paying their registry fees, which hasn’t been the case of the city’s closest existing comparison, the business licensing system.
“I should expect not enough compliance, a funding gap, and four people on this dais to say it’s the right thing to do and take from other services to pay for this boondoggle,” Bacerra said.
The city’s Housing Division Manager, Judson Brown, responded:
“This is a special fund in the budget. The program itself can’t go over budget, it can’t take from other funds. Currently we’re front loading the cost of providing this using inclusionary housing fees, which we plan to repay once we collect rental registry fees for fiscal year 23-24.”
Phan asked, “Is there any law that has 100% compliance? Have any of us heard of that?”
Staff responded in the negative.
“We’re trying to hold our staff and council to this perfect bar of perfect compliance when what we’re trying to do is get this program off the ground,” Phan said.
A representative of the landlord group suing the city’s rent control law said the Oct. 17 discussion only raised more questions for his stakeholders about whether the information is necessary.
“It seems to be a ham-fisted effort to push through a policy that could have been thought through and resolved through communication,” said Chip Ahlswede of the Apartment Association of OC, who along with other property associations argue the law was passed with minimal landlord input.
“What happens to this data?” Ahlswede said.
Questions to a city spokesperson about how much of the rental registry’s data – if any – would be public went unreturned on Tuesday.
Mextli Lopez, a long time tenants’ rights organizer in Santa Ana, called the Mayor’s statements from the dais a “baseless” attempt to find criticisms of a law that’s not unique or unprecedented in California.
Currently, other cities like Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda and San Francisco have rental registries on the books.
Lopez said that without the rental registry – and the information it collects like a household’s preferred language – Santa Ana’s tenant protections would have no mechanism to ensure, for instance, that landlords communicate with tenants about their rights in their own language, in a predominantly Latino city.
Without the registry, said Lopez, “we would be depending on the goodwill of landlords to follow the law.”
The rental registry debate was requested to return as a formal council discussion at the council’s next meeting, on Nov. 7.
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