Owners of rental property in unincorporated St. Louis County will have to register with the county — and potentially face closer governmental scrutiny.
But critics say they’re planning to go to court over legislation that they contend is overly burdensome against poor and minority tenants.
The St. Louis County Council Tuesday night gave final approval to legislation requiring owners of rental property to obtain licenses. It would only apply to property with four or fewer units — not large apartment complexes. Councilman Mike O'Mara's bill would require the landlords to follow certain guidelines — or face suspension or revocation of their licenses.
Voting in favor of the bill were O’Mara, D-Florissant; Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights; Kevin O’Leary, D-Oakville, and Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur. Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, joined Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Frontenac, and Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, in voting against the measure.
O’Mara has long contended the bill would make problem properties easier to track. Before the public got its chance to speak on Tuesday, he showed a slideshow of dilapidated and unsightly properties in Glasgow Village in north St. Louis County.
“One of the homes didn’t have gas or electric in it,” said O’Mara, who noted that someone who had spoken against the bill in prior weeks owned some of the properties. “They were growing a marijuana plant in the family room. They didn’t have trash service, so they decided to throw it in the neighbors’ backyard and side yard. And [they] come here and speak against this bill saying my properties are fine?”
But during a lengthy public forum session, some landlords took issue with a requirement to evict people who commit felonies on a property. While St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane has said that a landlord would only be prompted to remove from the property the person who committed certain felonies, numerous speakers contended that wasn’t legally possible.
Kathy Davis, an attorney who specializes in landlord disputes, has said there will almost certainly be a lawsuit if O’Mara’s legislation is signed into law.
“This bill is not going to help with the problems that you showed in the slideshow,” Davis said. “It’s not going to help you with vacant properties and the other problems that you have. Doing some research, we’ve found that many federal district courts and at least two federal appellate circuits have struck down ordinances similar to this ordinance. I know that we already have plans if you pass the ordinance to use up a lot of time and money — both of us and St. Louis County — to go to court and have this ordinance stricken also.”
Zachary Schmook of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council said supporters of the legislation aren’t looking at the bigger picture.
“I think the saddest part about that is you have squandered this consensus,” Schmook said. “We have a consensus that vacant properties are bad. We have a consensus that there needs to be techniques to address dilapidated properties. And we have consensus that this is not the way to do that, other than the way we’ve told you over the last six weeks.
“Landlords who are the most problematic are not the landlords that you’ve heard from today,” he added. “They are the landlords who are barely more wealthy than their tenants. And no matter the stick that you hit those landlords with, you’re not going to create finances to allow them to develop.”
Other detractors of the bill contended the measure would disproportionately hurt poor and minority tenants. And Shannon Flood, who owns several properties in unincorporated St. Louis County, contended that wasn’t the right message to send after more than a year of turmoil following Michael Brown’s shooting death.
“We’re not even a year after what happened in Ferguson,” Flood said. “We don’t need another black eye. Property values have gone down significantly in the last several years. This is not going to help to bring it up.”
None of the four councilmen who voted for the legislation was available to talk to the press on Tuesday. And neither was St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who would need to sign O’Mara’s bill for it to go into law.
Harder, whose bid to have a committee hearing on O’Mara’s bill was rejected, predicted the council would ultimately pay for not listening to tenants or landlords.
“I don’t know what the big rush was on this, but it happened,” Harder said. “The county taxpayers are going to pay for this. We’re going to spend a lot of money with our legal team upstairs on the ninth floor.”