Property owners oppose O’Mara’s rental-license legislation

Councilman rejects request to send bill to council panel

Michael O'Mara

Michael O’Mara

By Gloria Lloyd

The latest attempt to start a rental license for county landlords is the most divisive legislation to come through the County Council since County Executive Steve Stenger came to office in January.

Property owners oppose the measure and the Arch City Defenders contend the bill includes the same abuses that the group is fighting in north county municipal courts.

Fourth District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, first proposed the rental license to address problem properties in north county last year but dropped it after many residents — including former Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville — said the wording of the bill was so broad and confusing that it could require county residents to obtain a rental license for their grandchildren to spend the night at their house.

The legislation was scheduled to be up for final approval Tuesday — after the Call went to press. However, the measure was held because O’Mara was ill and could not attend the council meeting.

Despite the opposition of 13 speakers at last week’s council meeting, the council moved the legislation forward along party lines 4-2, with Democrats in favor and 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, and 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, opposed. First District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, was absent.

The bill only applies to rental properties in unincorporated St. Louis County, and O’Mara said he hopes the license will give the county another tool to fight problem properties by going after owners, not just tenants, with exceptions made for owners of apartment complexes with more than five residents.

Landlords would renew their license at no fee every year through an online process that O’Mara said county officials hope to establish.

Under the bill, landlords must maintain their properties and could be on the hook for fines of $1,000 or a year in the county jail for each day that they house tenants the county deems a “public nuisance” — which is not defined — or who have been convicted of crimes ranging from felonies to municipal ordinances.

Just like last year, when the bill also split along party lines, no one from the public spoke in favor of the bill.

“As long as you keep your properties up, you don’t have a worry in the world about this bill,” O’Mara told landlords from around the region who showed up to the Sept. 22 meeting to oppose the legislation. “It’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 this neighborhood, and many neighborhoods in the north county area that I deal with, and we’re trying to address it. So you’re a good tenant, you’re a good landlord? You have no problem.”

For the last years of former County Executive Charlie Dooley’s tenure, the council’s Republicans have generally sided with Stenger and council Democrats, with Dooley ally Erby at times the only dissent.

However, the rental license has brought out some divisions: When the bill was perfected Aug. 25, Harder and Wasinger requested a Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss what Harder called a “very complex bill,” but Chairman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, said the motion for perfection was already up for a vote. The council perfected the bill 4-3, with Harder, Wasinger and Erby opposed.

Dolan and O’Mara shot the suggestion down again when Harder brought it up at the end of the meeting.

“We’re not going to have a Committee of the Whole (meeting) on it,” O’Mara said.

“Why wouldn’t we?” Harder asked.

“It’s my bill,” O’Mara replied.

“We’ll discuss it later, but we’re not bringing it up right now,” Dolan told Harder, and O’Mara immediately motioned for adjournment.

That week, Stenger deferred questions about the bill to O’Mara.

The county spends more than $1 million every year to knock down houses, including several in recent years in Lemay — a problem and expense O’Mara has said is one of his pet peeves.

He hopes the enforcement measures in the no-fee rental license will be the tool county officials need to tackle the declining rental properties in his district — especially in Glasgow Village. With plummeting property values that mirror the rest of the Riverview Gardens School District, which went unaccredited in 2006, many of the houses in unincorporated Glasgow are now either rentals or bank-owned after the subprime mortgage crisis.

However, advocates for fair housing and the homeless said last week they believe the rental license violates multiple federal laws, including the due process and equal-protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

Arch City Defenders managing attorney Stephanie Lummus views the bill as the latest example of the “revolving door justice” and abuses of north county municipal courts that her organization drew attention to in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson — concerns that were later corroborated by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“We view this bill as compounding the municipal court exploitive practices,” Lummus said. “We believe this will disproportionately and unfairly impact communities of color … We’re taking these highly circumspect ordinance convictions, and we’re using them to separate families and create more homeless individuals. I feel this is compounding that problem. We would like to take a look at the bill, make sure it’s not unconstitutional on its face and make sure it doesn’t disproportionately impact vulnerable demographics.”

Due to the nationwide scrutiny the county is under after Ferguson, the rental license could jeopardize the county’s U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, funding, said Will Jordan, executive director of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council.

“I really believe the way the bill is written — and possibly how it’s enforced — that you’re going to be on the radar screen at HUD, the ninth floor in D.C. at the HUD office, about whether or not St. Louis County’s complying about the duty to affirmatively further fair housing,” Jordan said.

The latest version of the legislation specifies what illegal activity would violate the license, O’Mara said, which he believes “should clarify any Fair Housing Act concerns.”

But county landlord Joseph Ord said the bill forces him to violate federal law to act like a renter’s parent.

“I take issue that as a landlord, I somehow need to be responsible if a tenant who is not my son or daughter commits any combination of the following: ‘Public drunkenness, ticket scalping, DUI, DWI, cable theft, trespassing, driving an ATV on private property, owning or misusing a BB gun or pellet gun,'” he said, quoting an earlier version of the bill.

Landlords also have “zero authority” to police domestic violence, Ord noted.