On the Trail: Even after passage, county rental property regulation is still striking a nerve
Glasgow Village is a leafy collection of houses that’s just a stone’s throw away from the Mississippi River. It consists of stout and sturdy bungalows and an almost serene quiet during the late morning hours.
But this unincorporated north St. Louis County community is ground zero for what’s become an acrimonious political fight. Many of these one-story dwellings are rental properties, the exact type of places that will soon face tighter regulations from St. Louis County.
Jerry Hopping owns some of these houses. Many of them cost no more than a new car, thanks to the downturn in the real estate market in St. Louis County. As he stood on the side of a sidewalk-less street, Hopping indicated he’s not ready to back down against St. Louis County on new requirements placed on landlord of buildings with fewer than four units.
“[It’s like] I’m asking you to design a car and you’ve never driven car,” Hopping said. “It’s like you have an idea, but unless have actually been a landlord or rented a property or gone through an eviction process from the landlord standpoint and deal with what we have to deal with, to put together a bill that controls that seems arrogant.”
Hopping has been deeply at odds with Councilman Mike O’Mara, a Florissant Democrat who shepherded his bill through the St. Louis County Council after weeks of starts, stops and revisions. But even though they were unsuccessful at stopping O’Mara’s legislation from making it through the County Council, Hopping and other critics of the legislation are ready to take their fight to court.
“You’re asking us to do things that are illegal,” Hopping said. “I fully anticipate lawsuits to be filed. It is unfortunate. And the county knows that they’re going to be filed.”
Tracking the problem
At issue is a measure that requires owners of rental property in unincorporated St. Louis County to obtain licenses. It would only apply to smaller rental units, not apartment complexes – which was a major source of contention when the matter was debated before the council.
License holders would have to comply with certain guidelines, such as the county’s maintenance codes. O’Mara and other proponents of the legislation contend it will make problem properties easier to track.
“Specifically with [Glasgow Village], there are 200 or 300 vacant homes up there. Many other homes are occupied, but they are without question -- just looking at them from the outside -- not up to code,” said St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch earlier this month. “And I think this bill is designed to address some of those issues to encourage, or incentivize if you will, property owners to keep their properties up to code and to make sure they’re enforcing their own leases.”
To be sure, most people involved in the debate agree that there are miscreant landlords throughout St. Louis County that don’t keep up their properties. And even opponents such as Hopping say the bill was dramatically improved between introduction and passage.
But even after the changes, the council’s final approval of O’Mara’s bill came after an immense and widespread backlash. An unusual coalition of landlords, tenants’ rights groups and conservative politicians such as Paul Berry spent weeks decrying the bill’s language and intent.
“[Tenants] have issues not being able to pay your bills [and] with high rental rates,” said Berry, a Republican candidate for Congress. “These are things established by jobs. And you’re not going to create some quick fix, one-shop bill.”
The bill’s critics have pointed out procedural and philosophical problems. Hopping said problems in north St. Louis County aren't necessarily emanating rental properties, but rather vacant houses that decay and serve as hotbeds for crime.
Other landlords like Jim Heffernan took issue with a requirement to evict an individual tenant who commits certain felonies, such as selling drugs or drug paraphernalia or prostitution. Heffernan says that’s not legally or practically possible.
“As a landlord and an investor, I have no problem being held responsible for the upkeep of the home. Taking care of the home and making sure it’s in good shape is important for keeping more property and my investment up,” Heffernan said. “But what I don’t have control over is the social issues and the ability to control the social issues of my tenants. The bill has us as landlords being responsible for evictions of tenants who get in trouble with social issues. And I have no way of actually knowing when that’s going to happen or if they happen.”
Nick Kasoff is a landlord for several properties in Ferguson. He said there are practical issues with the eviction provision: “What if the felon is not on the lease at all? An eviction can only be filed against somebody who has leased the property, or has asserted lawful habitation there. If the boyfriend who sleeps over a few nights a week is busted selling drugs, who do you evict?
“But I have a greater issue than the legal feasibility of this. We have a criminal justice system that is supposed to mete out punishment to those who violate the law,” Kasoff said. “If a person is not fit to live in a neighborhood, that's the reason we have jails and prisons. If our judicial system chooses not to incarcerate somebody, they have to live somewhere.”
See you in court?
Other critics like landlord Joseph Ord are worried that O’Mara’s legislation will primarily affect poor African-Americans, especially since many tenants of north St. Louis County rental properties are black.
"Is this bill going to get evenly enforced?" Ord said at a recent county council meeting. "Because if it doesn't, then this is really going to seem like you're being racist. It's going to be a Ferguson issue if it doesn't get even enforced in West County, North County, South County.
Ord's sentiments were later echoed by Mustafa Abdullah, a program associate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri who had major concerns about the legislation.
“Provisions requiring evictions of those convicted of felonies, I think will have a serious impact on family structures and will increase homeless,” said Abdullah. “Punishing families for the crimes of a single member is unfair and potentially puts the child at risk. And … the required eviction provisions will have a disparate impact on communities of color."
At least week’s county council meeting, an attorney representing landlords promised a lawsuit if O’Mara’s bill passed. But county officials are pushing ahead. St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who signed the measure into law, said the council made major changes to the legislation based on the concerns of its critics.
“We have seen citizens coming to council meetings in groups – umbrella groups – and requesting changes to the legislation. And those changes were made,” Stenger said. “I think we’ve seen a bill that has evolved as a result of the democratic process.”
He added that the county is ready to defend the bill in court – and that there’s great value in closely tracking rental properties.
“Our public works department is forced into a position of using taxpayer dollars to take care of derelict properties,” Stenger said. “And I think that landlords need to be held accountable, not taxpayers. It’s not the responsibility of St. Louis County taxpayers to take care of derelict properties – it needs to be landlords.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.