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Economy & Business

Proposal Could Bar Missouri Landlords From Outing Undocumented Tenants

02-28-20 State Rep. Sarah Unsicker speaks about immigrant tenants
Corinne Ruff | St. Louis Public Radio
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A bill introduced this week in the Missouri House of Representatives aims to prevent landlords from threatening to or actually disclosing their tenants’ immigration status.

During a press conference Friday at St. John the Baptist Parish Hall, state Rep. Sarah Unsicker said the proposal is a necessary protection for immigrant tenants who are being harassed and intimidated by their landlords for speaking out against poor housing conditions.

“I think it’s a lot more widespread than it’s talked about,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are afraid to talk about it. They kind of live in the shadows anyway, and this bill will let them live a little bit less in the shadows.”

The Democrat from Shrewsbury said her proposal would allow tenants to sue their landlord for up to $2,000 per violation.

“I hope it will persuade some action in local communities, especially in St. Louis city, and I hope for the immigrant community it lets them know that there are people in the Legislature that have their back,” she said.

Unsicker said the proposal leaves plenty of protections in place for landlords; they can still conduct criminal and financial background checks for prospective tenants and evict tenants who violate their lease terms.

She said she modeled her proposal after a new law in Illinois.

Unsicker said there’s a long road ahead to getting the bill passed, including persuading enough of her colleagues in the Statehouse to support it. 

“There’s a lot of fear of immigrants and of people they don’t know much about, and that’s going to be a hard obstacle to overcome,” she said. 

Members of local housing and immigrant rights groups, who also attended the event, hope Unsicker’s proposal will at least bring more attention to the issue.

That includes Emily Stuart, who approached the state representative last year about how to solve the housing problems many immigrants face.

Stuart is the director of Family Development Services at LifeWise STL, an organization that addresses systemic barriers to economic well-being for immigrants and other vulnerable groups.

She said a lot of the families she works with live in rental properties where there’s an “unspoken power dynamic” that makes tenants feel they can’t bring up issues with their apartment.

Stuart said some tenants aren’t offered formal leases.

“We’ll see unattended maintenance issues, vector issues with rats or cockroaches. Someone could have their documents held by a landlord in exchange for free work,” she said.

02-28-20 press conference about immigrant tenant rights
Credit Corinne Ruff | St. Louis Public Radio
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LifeWise STL posted signs on the wall made by local immigrant women facing housing issues.

Stuart said none of the women she works with felt comfortable attending the public event. In order to make sure their voices were still included, she posted signs they made on the wall behind the speakers. 

The signs include phrases, in English and Spanish, like “out of fear we don’t talk about our needs,” and “our money has the same value.”

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

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Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.