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Legal challenge to controversial St. Louis County rental housing bill ordinance imminent

Legal challenge to controversial St. Louis County rental housing bill ordinance imminent

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CLAYTON • Disillusioned opponents of a divisive measure to impose a license on the owners of rental housing units in unincorporated St. Louis County are exploring legal options after a narrow County Council vote Tuesday night to put the ordinance into effect by year’s end.

“We’ve been looking at it closely, and we have some concerns,” said Diane Balogh, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Chapter of the ACLU.

County Executive Steve Stenger said Wednesday that he would sign the bill.

Barring an injunction to block its implementation, the ordinance will require landlords to start obtaining rental property licenses on Dec. 31.

“We are ready to defend (the ordinance),” Stenger, a Democrat, said. “And I think it will survive a legal challenge.”

Mark Harder, a Republican and one of the three council members opposed to the bill, said he was “disheartened” that four fellow lawmakers ignored impassioned pleas to redraft the legislation.

“Now the people of St. Louis County will have to defend this bill in court, and that’s going to cost the county a lot of money,” said Harder, of west St. Louis County.

Harder characterized the outcry over the licensing initiative as the most contentious county issue “since Ferguson.”

Jerry Hopping, a north St Louis County landlord and leader of an unaffiliated group of rental property owners who mounted a campaign to stop the bill, expressed outrage at the outcome.

“The council’s actions are a blatant and perfect reason why Americans are fed up with politicians and have lost confidence in the government for not listening to the people they represent,” Hopping said.

The bill that squeaked through Tuesday night was the fifth version of the legislation to come before the council since March 2014.

Democratic Councilman Michael O’Mara, the sponsor, said the intent of the measure was to crack down on irresponsible landlords, particularly in Glasgow Village, a North County subdivision with an abundance of unkempt homes and property.

The legislation instead spawned resistance from conservatives, liberals, community activists and advocates for fair housing and the homeless.

Criticism included accusations that the initiative unfairly targeted low-income, African-American residents living in rented single-family homes, condominiums, and two- and four-flat residences in North County.

Harder said he believed the ideologically diverse response to the ordinance spoke volumes.

“What does it say that groups that find themselves on so many sides of so many different issues were unified in opposition to this bill?” the council member asked.

Of the critics, none complained more vehemently than rental property owners who claimed the ordinance threatened their livelihoods by holding them accountable for the behavior of tenants.

O’Mara in response removed some, but not all, of the language that critics found most objectionable.

Struck was a provision that carried penalties of license forfeiture, fines and potentially even jail time for landlords who knowingly rented to residents who violated nuisance ordinances during their tenancy .

The bill was further tailored to specifically disallow evictions of domestic violence victims.

Opponents believed they’d scored a victory on Oct. 6 when south St. Louis County Councilman Kevin O’Leary, in an unexpected retreat from earlier support of the measure, switched sides in a 4-3 vote that sent the bill to defeat.

O’Leary was returned to fellow Democrat O’Mara’s corner, however, when the lawmaker at the last minute brought a new version back to the council the following week.

Elected to the council in April, O’Leary joined the majority on Tuesday again favoring a bill the landlords contend is still fundamentally unfair.

Of particular concern is the section of the ordinance requiring rental property owners to evict or bar tenancy to a renter with a felony conviction.

Hopping and the property owners say state law prohibits the eviction of a single tenant.

Katharyn Davis, a lawyer specializing in tenant-landlord issues, said the property owners and various legal entities opposing the ordinance might come together to launch a legal challenge.

“It would be my inclination to file for an injunction that would go automatically to the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality” of the statute, Davis said.

Tuesday’s vote left Davis, like others, wondering why O’Mara and the council resisted offers by the various factions to work out a consensus on the housing bill.

“I think all of us really hoped the council would hear what we were saying, table the bill, talk to us and make it better,” Davis said.

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Steve Giegerich is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Jessica Bock is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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