The St. Louis County Council delivered a major blow to a bid to tighten regulations over rental properties in unincorporated St. Louis County.
By a 4-3 margin, the council rejected a revised version of Councilman Mike O’Mara’s legislation. It would have required owners of rental property in unincorporated St. Louis County to secure licenses. And it would have provided guidelines for when the county could revoke or suspend a license for certain “public nuisances.”
The bill could still be brought up next week, but it will almost certainly require substantial changes in order to pass.
The legislation affected one-family and two-family dwellings, attached townhouse dwellings and multiple-family dwellings having four or less living units. O’Mara, D-Florissant, saw the bill as a way to take control of “problem properties” – especially in places like Glasgow Village in north St. Louis County.
“Enough is enough,” said O’Mara at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting. “Our neighborhood deserve better. We’re tired of addressing these issues. We’ve addressed these issues … all the way through the court system. And it’s fair to say that enough is enough and we’re going to move forward with this bill this evening.”
But the bill garnered immense criticism over 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 contended that “public nuisance” was defined way too broadly – so much so that it could potentially displace domestic violence victims.
The new version of O’Mara’s bill that was introduced on Tuesday tightened what crimes constitute a “public nuisance.” And it specifically states that the county’s director of public works can’t suspend or revoke a license “based on activities connected with or related to incidents of domestic violence, including the making of emergency 911 calls relating to such incidents.”
“I think overall it is a good ordinance and a good step toward maintaining and improving the housing stock that we have parts of the county that are growing older,” said St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who made a somewhat rare appearance before the Council to offer his support for O’Mara’s legislation. “The housing stock is growing older and the population is growing older. And we need to do something about that. Otherwise, we’re all going to have an awful lot of work to do again.”
Still, O’Mara’s bill still took a lot of flack during the Council’s public forum. Landlords, housing rights advocates and some conservative activists contended the bill was still too vague and could produce unintended consequences.
In a letter to the Council, the Metropolitan St. Louis Housing and Equal Opportunity Council contended the new version of O’Mara’s bill still contained big problems. Those included “failure to include standards for lifting suspensions and revocations of licenses, insufficient appeals processes, continuing inclusion of eviction mandates, and overly broad occupancy restrictions.”
And landlord Joe Ord openly questioned whether the legislation would be enforced evenly throughout the county – especially since Glasgow Village is predominantly African-American.
“Because if it doesn’t, this is really going to seem like you’re being racist,” Ord said. “It’s going to be a Ferguson issue if this does not get evenly enforced … I manage over 250 units. I manage in North County. I manage in West County. I manage in St. Charles. I have units that cross the spectrum. And I’m telling you that crimes happen in all those neighborhoods.”
O’Leary makes the difference
The decision ‘no’ vote came from Councilman Kevin O’Leary, an Oakville Democrat who recently joined the council.
O’Leary had long been seen a solid ally of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who supported the longtime restaurateur in his successful bid to represent the south St. Louis County-based 6th District. But he said the negative reaction from the public over the bill made a mark.
“I just don’t think that we’re there yet,” O’Leary said. “It was kind of hard to go against so many people that thought the same way. And just like someone said: We were voted to help the people. So, that’s how I felt.”
O’Leary went onto say that “I want to get it right – I want to make sure that everybody’s happy.”
“Our team and all the people,” O’Leary said. “That’s all I want.”
Both Stenger and O’Mara left Tuesday’s meeting without taking questions from the press.
O’Leary joined with Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, and Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, in voting down the new version of O’Mara’s bill. Harder said the move was “a great exercise in democracy.”
“We saw people come from all different walks of life, all different income groups, all different persuasions and talked about this bill in a way that should have been talked about four or five weeks ago when I requested [a committee hearing],” Harder said. “[That] would have brought in some of these landlords and property managers and code enforcement people to sit around the table and talk about what is the best piece of legislation?”
“And if they would have come together then, we would probably be voting on a good piece of legislation tonight instead of one that’s been band-aided together for the last couple of weeks,” he added.