Updated with comments from County Executive Steve Stenger - The St. Louis County Council held off on voting on legislation that requires owners of certain rental property to obtain licenses.
But even without a vote, the bill was the subject of immense criticism from a coalition of people who feel the bill is too broad and could have unintended consequences that would adversely affect victims of domestic violence.
Councilman Mike O’Mara’s legislation would require landlords to apply for and receive licenses to operate rental property in unincorporated St. Louis County. An aide to O’Mara said the Florissant Democrat was ill on Tuesday, which prompted the council to not to take a final vote on the measure.
Part of the reason the bill garnered so much controversy was language stipulating when a license can be suspended or revoked. One provision would suspend or revoke a license if certain “public nuisances” occur three or more times at an owner's rental property.
But critics of the bill contend that “public nuisances” is defined is way too broadly. In a letter to councilmembers, the directors of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council expressed deep concern that the way the bill is written could displace domestic violence victims.
“It is common that when a victim calls the police for assistance her abuser will be arrested and may be convicted, which would trigger the suspension or revocation of a landlord’s license and threatening the disruption of tenant leases,” the letter says. “As tenants learn of the risk that seeking police help could lead to displacement they may be less willing to reach out for assistance, which could have tragic consequences.”
Jeffrey Mittman, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, said in a statement that his group is “deeply troubled that St. Louis County Council members may not have considered the full ramifications of amending a nuisance-type law that could end up evicting victims of domestic violence or prevent them from calling the police.
“No one needing protection should ever fear eviction if they call the police,” Mittman said.
Council Chairman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, said the county’s legal staff was altering the bill’s language. And St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane emphasized that domestic violence victims would be protected in the new version of the legislation.
“The concerns about public nuisance statutes being exercised wrongfully against vulnerable populations was an issue that was brought before to me and to Mr. O’Mara’s attention,” Krane said. “And he has made it clear that this is not to be worded in any language that could be abused by any person seeking to otherwise victimize already victimized populations.”
Krane went onto say that the “comments made during the public forum are taken heart by the council. And we are going to attempt to address the various comments made."
During a nearly an hour of public comment O’Mara’s bill received overwhelmingly negative feedback from an unlikely coalition of landlords, civil liberties advocates and tenants’ rights groups.
Some, like Maplewood resident Amy Peterson, said it was “shameful to be considering a bill that can put women who are in the most vulnerable position in their life in this kind of risk — women who have done nothing wrong except exist in proximity to controlling and controlling men.
“We should be protecting women who are the victims of domestic violence. But often ordinances like this are used to re-victimize them. As I said, this is not a hypothetical situation. I have seen this happen to women in this county in municipalities with similar ordinance.”
Zachary Schmook, associate director for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, said O’Mara’s bill “doesn’t address the real needs of the community here."
“What strikes me about this bill is the unity of tenants, of landlords — pretty much everybody who’s involved in the rental property,” Schmook said.
The public forum also featured at-times passionate testimony from property owners like Jason Risch, who owns rental properties in north St. Louis County. The Oakville resident contended that bill isn’t going to help that part of the county’s already hard-hit real estate market.
“What it’s going to do is it’s going to discourage people like me from buying those vacant [houses] you’ve still got sitting there,” Risch said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Stenger: 'Democracy in play'
During a telephone interview on Wednesday afternoon, County Executive Steve Stenger said "big changes" were being made to O'Mara's bill. And while he emphasized he hadn't seen the final version of the legislation, he added many alterations are "being informed by public opinion."
"I think what we’re seeing is democracy in play," Stenger said. "And it’s a process that requires public input. And that’s why we have public meetings. That’s why there are three readings of the bill. And it makes a lot of sense that it proceeds this way. Because I am very happy that we had residents out and speak and air their thoughts and concerns on the bill. And at the end of the day, those thoughts and concerns have been heard by the council. They’ve certainly be heard by me."
Stenger said he had "detailed communications with advocates in the domestic violence community." Those conversations, he said, led to bill alterations that make it clear domestic violence victims won't be displaced.
He went onto say that the bill's "genesis" came from experiences in O'Mara's 4th District, which encompasses portions of unincorporated North St. Louis County.
"And I think that over the years, his district has experienced the most difficulty with problem properties," Stenger said. "And I believe that this piece of legislation as produced by him is in response to what he perceives and what he has experienced as a major issue in his district."
But Stenger, who represented south St. Louis County on the council from 2009 to 2014, added that some parts of the bill could be helpful, especially since county government is responsible for services in unincorporated areas.
"I can tell you from an administration standpoint, the registration component is helpful. Because it allows for an easier tracking of landlords and problem properties," Stenger said. "The one feature of the bill is that it’s free. I mean, there’s no fee associated with registration. It’s just registration."