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County Council close to passing license requirement for landlords

As of right now, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger effectively has a five-person coalition on the St. Louis County Council — including its two Republican members.
Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis County Council could provide final passage to a measure requiring licenses for certain rental properties in unincorporated St. Louis County.

The St. Louis County Council could hold a final vote tomorrow on legislation requiring landlords of rental properties in unincorporated St. Louis County to obtain licenses. The stated intent is to ensure proper maintenance of the buildings.

But the bill is receiving pushback from landlords and some housing advocates who contend the measure is too burdensome -- and could produce unintended consequences, including potential for discrimination.

For several years, Councilman Mike O’Mara has been supporting legislation that would require landlords to apply for and receive licenses to operate rental property in unincorporated St. Louis County. According to the latest draft of the legislation, the bill would affect one-family and two-family dwellings, attached townhouse dwellings and multiple-family dwellings having four or less living units. (Click here to read the bill language that was adopted at last week's county council meeting.)

The licenses wouldn’t cost anything, but O’Mara has said they are an effective manner to monitor potentially troublesome properties.

“As long as you keep your properties up, you don’t have a worry in the world about this bill,” said O’Mara at last week’s county council meeting. “That’s very simple. You take care of your property, it does not affect you. It’s the problem properties that we’re going after that have been a nuisance to … many neighborhoods in the North County area that I deal with. And we’re trying to address it.”

Among other things, O’Mara’s bill stipulates when the county can suspend a landlord’s license. That could include:

  • Failing to keep a rental property up to the county’s property maintenance code.
  • Making false statements on a rental property license application.
  • Not obtaining occupancy permits before a dwelling is occupied.

Fierce pushback

But one provision that’s provoked the most criticism involves “public nuisances.” It states that a license may be suspended or revoked if “an owner has been notified by the director of three or more acts within one year by occupants of said residential rental property which constitute a public nuisance.”

A number of landlords at last week’s St. Louis County Council meeting noted that the definition of “public nuisances” includes petty offenses such as ticket scalping, riding an ATV on certain properties and improperly handling a BB gun. Joseph Ord, an owner of 45 properties and the manager of 56 single-family properties in unincorporated St. Louis County, said he took “issue that I have to be responsible if a tenant who is not my son or daughter commits” certain petty crimes.

And he also expressed concern that domestic violence offenses were included under the definition of public nuisances.

“I as a landlord and a non-related individual have absolutely zero authority to insert myself in any capacity in these situations,” Ord said. “To do so, I’d be violating federal Fair Housing Laws, which landlords are bound to and trumps any housing-related ordinance that this council could possibly enact.” 

Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council executive director Willie Jordan says O'Mara's bill could disproportionately affect minority tenants.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council executive director Willie Jordan says O'Mara's bill could disproportionately affect minority tenants.

Also expressing alarm about the bill is the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council. In a letter to Council Chairman Pat Dolan, the group’s executive director and associate director said that “the proposed code, while well intentioned, will have substantial negative, and potentially discriminatory, effects for tenants and vulnerable populations in St. Louis County.” They also contended the bill doesn’t do enough to protect victims of domestic violence or people with disabilities from being displaced.

"If the County continues to pursue a residential real estate licensing requirement, then it should at least significantly narrow the scope and the permissible grounds for taking away a landlord's license," the letter states. "The County should also not prevent a landlord who does lose his certificate because of problems at a particular property from continuing to rent out other units that are safe and habitable."

Willie Jordan, the group’s executive director, said at a press conference on Monday that the bill could disproportionately affect low-income minority tenants.

“In the light of what’s going in Ferguson, we really feel like this bill is going exactly the opposite direction. We feel that it’s going to impede the county’s ability to help to dismantle segregation and racism with the disproportionate number of minorities that this bill has the potential to affect,” Jordan said. “And so I hope that St. Louis County Council members would understand that this is not what they think it is. It’s an attempt to try to make housing better for persons by being able to eliminate nuisance issues. But the bill itself is way too broad, way too far sweeping.”

O’Mara didn’t return a phone call on Monday requesting further comment about his bill. A spokesman for St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said last week that the Democratic official would talk about O’Mara’s bill more after Tuesday’s meeting.

Members of the County Council could send O’Mara’s bill to Stenger on Tuesday evening. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.