UPDATED: O’Mara drops rental-license proposal

Move comes one week after residents oppose measure

By Gloria Lloyd

A week after more than a dozen residents came out in force to oppose 4th District County Councilman Michael O’Mara’s proposal that landlords in the county apply for rental licenses, O’Mara withdrew the bill indefinitely.

O’Mara, D-Florissant, said the bill did not do what its opponents claimed it did, and he meant it only to deal with the problem of problem rental properties, which the county spends $1 million a year to tear down.

“All we were trying to do on the rental side of it is state we would like you to register your rental property,” O’Mara said at Tuesday’s County Council meeting. “So when we go to a neighborhood and we have 1,800 homes and 60 percent of them (are) rental (properties), because we are understaffed it would take away the time-consuming (duties) of an inspector coming back to headquarters and spending eight hours a week trying to investigate who owns this particular property.”

Although O’Mara said his intention in proposing the bill was not to evict any tenants or cause the entire county to apply for a license to live in their home — consequences that opponents had read into what they called vague language in the bill — O’Mara said he would meet with any interested groups and opponents in the future to craft a better bill.

That would be several months down the line, however, he added.

Fair housing advocates and landlords united in opposition last week to a County Council proposal that would require landlords to apply for rental licenses for each of their properties.

The bill, sponsored by 4th District Councilman Michael O’Mara, D-Florissant, was held last week and was up for preliminary approval at the County Council meeting on Tuesday — after the Call went to press. An April 22 vote to move an earlier version of the bill forward split along party lines 4-2, opposed by 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, and 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country.

“Problem properties are a pet peeve of mine — it really gets under my skin when people can’t take care of their property,” O’Mara told the Call about his goal for the rental license. “Instead of maintaining properties, we’re spending $1 million of St. Louis County taxpayer money to tear down problem properties. And that’s wrong. That’s absolutely wrong. I’m putting every tool I can into it to address the situation right now.”

The bill only applies to rental properties in unincorporated St. Louis County, and O’Mara said he hopes the license gives the county another way to fight problem landlords.

“This gives us an added tool to go after not only the landlord but also those who are renting the property — whether it’s a property management company (or someone else),” he said. “Somebody’s going to be responsible, because it’s hurting the neighborhoods, so I’m going to address it.”

O’Mara has submitted several revisions to the bill in the weeks that it has been on the council docket, so County Executive Charlie Dooley said he is waiting to decide whether he supports it.

“Right now, I don’t have a comment on it — I’ll wait until the proposal is presented (in its final form) and if there are going to be any amendments,” he told the Call. “It’s not a done deal what it’s going to be and what it’s going to look like, so I want to reserve my comments until I get a full idea of what it’s actually saying, what they’re trying to get.”

Last week, 13 residents told the council they oppose the measure, noting their concerns that licensing could affect the availability of housing for the poor, make landlords less likely to do business in the county or force residents with foreign-exchange students or relatives living with them to apply for a rental license. No one spoke in favor of the bill.

Oakville resident Walt Bivins, a former state legislator, wondered if he would have to apply for a license under the ordinance, since his grandchildren sometimes live with him, or if his neighbors who have foreign-exchange students living with them would need a license.

“This could liberally be construed to require me to have a license to have (grandchildren) in my home, and my suggestion would be if you’re going to pass this bill that you have an amendment which would specifically exclude those types of, if you will, guests in your home,” Bivins said.

To clarify Bivins’ concern, 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, asked County Counselor Pat Redington if the bill would apply to homeowners hosting guests or relatives.

“Is there something in this that says if you have a niece living with you, you have to have a license?” Dolan asked.

“It actually only applies if you’re renting the property to someone who is the proposed principal occupant — so I would say a grandchild or a student for the year or a friend staying with you, they’re not the principal occupant if the owner of the property lives on the property,” Redington replied.

Despite Redington’s assurances that a rental license would not be required for hosting someone in your own house, speakers continued to object to the bill for vague wording that they thought could apply to friends and family members.

“Some things are kind of vague in it, but we’re still reviewing it. And again, it depends on what it says and what the sponsor intended it to mean. Sometimes those are nuances,” Dooley told the Call. “People read into it … It depends how you look at it.”

In response to questions from residents about whether the rental license was a “money grab” or a hidden tax, Dolan asked Redington, “I’m not really in favor of this ordinance, but isn’t it the case that there are no costs involved?”

Redington agreed there is no fee for the rental license.

“Why do we need this? That’s the only question I have,” asked Oakville resident William Pullen. “Why do we need this on the books, if you’re not making any money from it, if it’s free. We’re loaded down with laws anymore — why is this necessary?”

Bill sponsor O’Mara was absent from the council meeting, and in response to questions about the bill, Chairwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, told speakers she could not discuss the nuances of the bill’s wording, apologizing for O’Mara’s absence.

Under the terms of the latest version of the bill submitted last week, rental property is defined as dwellings that are not dorms, hotels or motels that are “(i) occupied by persons or (ii) offered for rent, lease or occupancy to any person(s) who otherwise qualify for an occupancy permit and are not the owners of record of said property.”

The bill does not charge a fee to landlords for the license, but it does impose a fine if a landlord does not get a license: up to $1,000 a day, and/or a year in jail. A landlord with any outstanding occupancy permit violations could not get a license, and a tenant cited three times for causing a nuisance would lead to the landlord’s rental license being revoked.

That means all of a landlord’s tenants might have to be evicted if the landlord had one problem tenant, which did not sit well with Will Jordan, executive director of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council, for its potential impact on minorities, victims of domestic violence, people with disabilities and “really all protected classes under the Fair Housing Act.”

“The issue with this particular bill is that it’s kind of one size fits all,” he said. “It could have a really long-term negative effect on the work that we do at EHOC. So I really urge the council members to kind of think about ways to amend it … I think it’s a good attempt. But the problem is, if the landlords are held down to that really really hard standard, more than likely the tenants are going to suffer really bad.”

O’Mara told the Call that in talks last December for this year’s county budget, he unsuccessfully requested two problem-property units be added to the two the county already has. At one time, the county had three units to enforce codes against problem properties, but one was cut.

In a separate matter, the council unanimously approved a special August election to elect a successor to 1st District Councilwoman Kathleen Kelly Burkett, D-Overland, who died April 6 after a yearlong battle with cancer. She had served on the council since 2002.