Urban Wire Understanding Who Owns Rental Stock Can Ensure Tenants and Small Landlords Get the Support They Need
Fay Walker, Eleanor Noble
Display Date

.

The pandemic hit independent mom-and-pop landlords—who own few properties but a large share of rental units—especially hard. 

Small landlords are more likely to have tenants of color and tenants who struggle to pay rent, and they are less likely to evict tenants compared with their large landlords or institutional investor counterparts. They provide a crucial source of affordable rental housing and operate on smaller margins than larger landlords, meaning unpaid rent can leave renters and small landlords vulnerable.

According to a recent Urban Institute report, since March 2020, mom-and-pop landlords sampled have received at least 86 percent of rent payments they were owed month-to-month. However, the remaining 14 percent of tenants behind on rent make up a significant number of renters who still need assistance and landlords missing rent.

State and local programs often use tenant or neighborhood-level data to determine rental assistance and eviction prevention program design. But landlord characteristics, like portfolio size, quality, and operation and property locations, are also highly related to tenant outcomes.

Despite the increased attention on landlords over the past two years, data on rental property ownership are still hard to come by. This information could help cities more effectively target rental assistance and eviction prevention programs to help renters and small landlords.

To help cities begin filling the gap, we mapped out steps city policymakers can consider to improve their rental data collection and transparency.

  1. Implement rental licensing ordinances.

    Rental license ordinances collect information about property ownership and create a paper trail that can protect tenants from illegal evictions or substandard housing. We compared Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—three cities with rental registries—to see whether and how their registries differ.

    We found the degree of enforcement varies. Minneapolis’ open-source rental licensing database allowed us to calculate the estimated number of households living in rental properties within 1 percent of the American Community Survey’s (ACS’s) estimate. Our Pittsburgh and Philadelphia estimates were within 9 and 8 percent of ACS estimates. This is in part because Pittsburgh does not publicly post rental registry data, leaving us to rely on unit counts, which are often missing from property data. Philadelphia has rental registry data, but an estimated 45 percent of landlords in Philadelphia do not register their properties, meaning the data also have some gaps.

    These variations matter because data play a key role in ensuring that cities clearly understand landlord portfolios and can thereby better target support to small landlords and hold landlords accountable to tenants.
  2. Make rental property ownership data publicly available.

    We compared Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh largely because they have some data available. But this isn’t true for all cities.
     

    Of the 15 Cities Examined, Only 3 Had Rental Registries That Contained Information on Owner Address and Property Unit Count

    City

    Owner address

    Unit count

    Rental registry

    Atlanta

    Yes

    No

    No

    Austin

    No

    No

    No

    Chicago

    Yes

    No

    No

    Dallas

    Yes

    No

    No

    Houston

    Yes

    Yes

    No

    Los Angeles

    No

    No

    No

    Minneapolis

    Yes

    Yes

    Yes

    New Orleans

    No

    No

    No

    New York

    Yes

    Yes

    Yes

    Philadelphia

    Yes

    Yes

    Yes

    Phoenix

    No

    No

    No

    Pittsburgh

    Yes

    Yes

    No

    San Antonio

    No

    No

    No

    San Diego

    No

    No

    No

    San Jose

    No

    No

    No

    Source: Author scan of city data portals.
    NotesSome cities may have these data available internally, but, for our purposes, we flagged them as “no” if these data were not free and easily downloadable on a public site.


    Organizations like JustFix.nyc and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project use publicly available rental ownership data to identify landlords that frequently file for evictions, create unsafe living conditions, or discriminate against tenants to connect renters experiencing similar challenges to legal and financial supports and advocacy efforts. This would not be possible without mandated open data that include information on owner address, unit count, and rental registration.

    In Philadelphia, these data have become less accessible in the past two years. To address power imbalances between landlords and tenants, housing practitioners and policymakers need access to high-quality, easily accessible data about rental property ownership. Cities can provide these data by creating up-to-date and publicly accessible rental registries.
  3. Identify property ownership patterns to create policies to better support small landlords.

    Mom-and-pop landlords are not a monolith. Housing is one of the primary contributors to building intergenerational wealth, but there is a 30 percent homeownership gap between white and Black households. And research shows Black and Latine mom-and-pop landlords have struggled more during the pandemic. Understanding who small owners are—including their race, their rental portfolios, the demographics of the neighborhoods where they live, operate, and own rentals—is a key step in creating policies to equitably serve them.

    In Minneapolis, local rent stabilization researchers (PDF) used publicly available rental licensing ordinance data to answer these questions about rental property ownership—a key first step toward ensuring equitable policy design and implementation that accounts for neighborhood-level variations in small landlords’ portfolios.

At this point in the pandemic, around 30 percent of landlords that applied for emergency rental assistance still have not received it and renters with low incomes and Black and Latine renters are facing disproportionate eviction risk. Though it is still too early to know all implications for renters and small landlords, understanding who owns the nation’s rental stock is the first step toward filling these gaps and mitigating potential long-lasting systemic inequities.


The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.

Show your support for research and data that ignite change. 

Research Areas Housing
Tags Housing affordability
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Related content
.
New data show that landlords are increasing rental prices and instituting stricter screening criteria for renters, indicating a bleak rental market outlook for years to come.
Media Name: shutterstock_1472037224_crop.jpg
Assistance could be a lifeline for many tenants and landlords, providing vital funding for much-needed preservation of their homes and properties.