Inspections, Rent Control, and AirBnB: The Power of Property Registrations in Housing Regulation


Property registrations may seem like a mundane aspect of municipal government operations, but my prior work on civic hacking and housing advocacy with the Open Cities team had me looking into its implications for residents’ access to stable and secure housing. Many cities require that property owners register their buildings in some form, though the exact requirements vary significantly across cities. These registries are largely used to inform building inspections, and in some cases, provide aggregate insights to public officials or the general public about the local rental market.

Per city websites, Baltimore requires that all residential rental units and vacant lots be registered and the city of Pittsfield requires registration of non-owner occupied properties. These ordinances vary across cities and over time as local governing bodies and housing needs evolve. For example, the city of Chicago has discontinued a multiple dwellings registration requirement, citing that “With new technologies available, there are other means and methods for collecting ownership information.” Here, I will examine the debate surrounding whether and how to enforce a property registry and explore how cities are using the data from registries to manage housing.

Code enforcement

Some cities use registries to conduct regular inspections of rental units, while others without a registry may use 311 complaints issued by tenants. Proponents of the former method argue that vulnerable tenants avoid filing complaints due to immigration status or fear of landlord retaliation, or that a lack of enforced registration causes cities to leave building inspection practices unevaluated until a major accident occurs. Others argue that the fees levied on landlords for building registrations to conduct inspections will be passed on to tenants in the form of rent increases or that the costs to maintain the registries are not justified. 

Evaluating and regulating the rental market

Increasingly, cities in competitive rental markets like the Bay Area are considering rental registries as a means of enforcing rent-control ordinances and tracking overall housing trends. In San Jose, CA, landlords sued the city for a rent registry ordinance meant to enforce rent control and a San Francisco supervisor issued a request to evaluate the cost of a rental registry for this purpose. Earlier this year, neighboring Marin County launched a registry that goes as far as collecting data on tenants, rents, occupancy, and evictions as part of a Just Cause for eviction policy. Such a registry would meaningfully contribute to the limited methods researchers have in accessing data on rent and better inform local housing policy. 

One aspect of evaluating and regulating the rental market is policy on short-term rentals, particularly through platforms like AirBnB or HomeAway. The home-sharing industry is growing and research suggests that the associated short-term rentals drive up rents for long-term residents. Cities must now grapple with whether and how to regulate short-term rentals. In many situations, this includes a registry targeted specifically at short-term rentals and data sharing agreements with corporations like AirBnB. Portland has recently reached an agreement with AirBnB that would allow regulators to access data from the platform and make registered listings public record on the city’s website. Similar enforcements are underway in many other major cities, including Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

Screenshot: City of Boston Short-Term Rentals Database

Emerging needs

Municipal leaders are tasked with ensuring that their efforts to support housing needs are effective and transparent. These efforts include policies like land bank funds, eviction and rent control regulations, affordable housing subsidies, and short-term rental limitations. In terms of infrastructure, property registries are a relatively easy way to gather data about a city’s housing stock. Residents and public officials who are concerned about the availability of information to support housing within cities should evaluate whether and how their local property registration ordinances are being leveraged.

Note: Featured image credit to Mark Moz on Flickr.