Rents Charged by Landlords Should be Made Public—Let’s Start with Culver City

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I’m excited to share a project I’ve been working on for some time: an interactive map of the Culver City Rental Registry, accessible to the public at https://ccrentals.org. In 2020, Culver City began requiring landlords to register their rental units with the city, in part as a way of ensuring compliance with the city’s rent control and tenant protections, and now anyone can access that information.

I want to emphasize that this tool is not affiliated with or authorized by the City of Culver City. The city has chosen, as a matter of policy, not to make the rental data public. However, the dataset can be obtained by any member of the public who files a public records request. I filed my first request for rental registry data on August 4, 2022, and I’ve been working on making this data public ever since. (As an aside, city staff members have been incredibly helpful in fulfilling the requests and helping me understand the data.)

Public rental information has the potential to shift the information asymmetry between landlords and tenants. When a tenant rents an apartment, the landlord knows the rent history of that apartment and what other tenants are paying for similar apartments. In contrast, the tenant often only knows the price offered by the landlord and what the tenant paid for their prior apartment. As a result, the tenant is at a distinct negotiating disadvantage from the start of the landlord-tenant relationship.

This asymmetry is one part of a power imbalance that lets landlords set the terms of tenancy, increase rents, and evict tenants. Along with policies like rent control and robust tenant protections, making rental information public might shift the balance a little more in the tenant’s favor.

At the very least, a tenant will now be able to check whether their landlord is reporting accurate rent data to the city.

Diving into this data, I tabulated some basic stats on rentals in Culver City. The average rent is $2,359 across the 6,570 rental units registered with the city. The highest rent in the city is an eye-popping $9,090—that massive monthly chunk of change will get you a 2-bed/2-bath apartment in the Ivy Station complex, a unit that has apparently been vacant since it was built. There are also 246 units that somehow continue to rent for $1,000 or less.

I also looked at the way rent has changed over the short history of the registry. Looking at the period March 2020 to March 2023, rent for single family homes and condos grew by 6.5%, whereas rent for apartments grew slightly less at 5.0%.

You may recall that, due to a limitation in California state law, the city’s rent control ordinance only applies to apartments with a certificate of occupancy dated before February 1, 1995. The rent for those pre-1995 units grew by 5.3% from March 2020 to March 2023. In contrast, the rent for units built in 1995 or later grew by 0.7% over the same period, perhaps suggesting that newer units don’t experience as much rent growth and aren’t in as desperate need for rent control yet — of course, this will become less true the further we get from 1995.

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I want to caution that this data does have limitations. If you are looking for a vacant place to rent, this isn’t going to be much help. Many vacant units are not registered and the data is not updated often enough to be useful for apartment hunting, though it might be useful to explore neighborhood rents before you try to negotiate with a new landlord.

The data also includes many errors. Remember, this is all self-reported by the landlords themselves. If you dig in, you’ll find inconsistent unit labels, rents that are obviously incorrect, and owner names that are left blank. I spent hours cleaning the data, but — to repeat the legal warning from the tool — please do not rely on the accuracy of this information for business decisions or other actions without first validating the data.

Finally, there’s also an issue of what is not captured in the registry: whether there’s been a change in tenancy that would allow a landlord to increase rent above the rent control threshold.

In the tool, I’ve included a feature that uses a red highlight to show rent increases that exceed the allowed threshold, termed “High Rent Increases.” But it isn’t useful for finding violations of rent control because the change in tenancy information is not there. Most of those red dots merely represent big rent hikes following a vacancy, not rent control violations.

This is a limitation the city must be facing, too. I’ve suggested they capture information in the registration process that would allow them to more conclusively determine when a big rent increase is a violation. City staff is in the process of evaluating potential changes to the registry—searching by landlord name is now a publicly available feature on the city’s site, for example—but changes in tenancy aren’t yet captured.

Nevertheless, this tool still shows how housing in our city becomes unaffordable as landlords raise rents after a vacancy. A 2-bedroom apartment can go from $2,450 to $2,523 to $3,195 in just three years (that’s a real example).

More changes in law and policy—and, in my view, significant state and federal funding to build social housing—will be required to make housing truly affordable in Culver City. But maybe if a tenant knows better what previous tenants paid and what neighbors are paying (and landlords are aware that this data is public), there can be a little more resistance against that upward trend.

Once again, you can access the Culver City Rental Registry interactive map at https://ccrentals.org. If you have feedback on how the tool might be improved to further help tenants, please email me at info@ccrentals.org.

[This article was first printed in Medium. Since it appeared, the City has bowed to pressure from a Republican-led and landlord-funded alt-right PAC and removed access to these public records from the City’s site, leaving ccrentals.org as the only place they can be seen.]