St. Louis aldermen advance legal representation for tenants facing eviction
St. Louis renters facing eviction are a big step closer to having legal representation.
The Board of Aldermen on Friday gave nearly unanimous first-round approval to the measure sponsored by Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia of the 6th Ward. She spent nearly two years drafting the bill, drawing on programs that are operating in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia.
“There’s lots of evidence that having representation in eviction proceedings is not only helpful to the tenants themselves but also landlords,” Ingrassia said.
The bill directs $5 million in federal local COVID relief funds to contracts with local nonprofits or attorneys. The city’s Community Development Agency would run the program; there is also funding for outreach. Landlords would have to make tenants aware of their new rights.
Attorneys would be required for any eviction or similar proceedings, or for a person trying to contest an illegal eviction known as a lockout. The right to counsel will begin no later than Jan. 31, 2024, with tenants in the ZIP codes with the most evictions getting priority. The city must have secured capacity to provide counsel to all renters by Jan. 31, 2027.
Before the pandemic, Ingrassia said, landlords in the city filed about 5,000 evictions. Data she collected for 2022 show the pace slowed to about 2,900. The Federal Reserve issued similar findings last June.
But even a slower pace of evictions means thousands of people facing potential homelessness, said Alderwoman Annie Rice of the 8th Ward.
“It doesn’t say anyone must be allowed to remain in an apartment or a home,” she said. “What it does is set up a system where people can get help getting through the legal process.”
Getting a tenant two weeks to secure different housing and hire a moving company, she said, can be the difference between having housing and ending up homeless, even briefly.
Alderman Jesse Todd of the 18th Ward acknowledged that providing legal assistance may make things harder for smaller landlords with difficult tenants.
“But if there’s an error, we should always error on the side of the people,” he said.
A final vote is expected in April.
Other board action
Aldermen on Friday also gave final approval to a number of pieces of legislation, sending them to Mayor Tishaura Jones, including:
- Changes to the development process to address in part a corruption scandal that took down three former aldermen.
- Directing $30 million from the settlement over the departure of the Rams to the expansion of the America Center, as required by the deal reached in November.
- Appropriating another $74 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for a variety of capital needs, including pedestrian safety and a centralized 911 system.
- A measure that could restart civilian oversight of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
Lawmakers last year gave the oversight board the authority to investigate all internal police investigations that deal with misconduct or use of force. The three police unions sued, saying the changes conflicted with state laws governing police discipline and civilian oversight boards. A judge agreed and blocked the city from moving forward with those changes, although he allowed the portion setting up civilian oversight of the city’s jail to take effect.
Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard of the 26th Ward said she could not predict whether the bill would lead the judge to lift the injunction. But she said there was a lot of collaboration to make a good faith effort to address not only those concerns, but others brought up by officers who didn’t agree with the lawsuit.
“I can't speak for them and what they might try to do, we'll be ready,” she said.
Aldermen are now on an election break until April 17.