Wednesday, June 7, 2017

St. Louis County 'Rental License' Ordinance Is Unconstitutional, Judge Says

Posted By on Wed, Jun 7, 2017 at 10:43 AM

click to enlarge A St. Louis County ordinance targeting landlords with four units or fewer has been struck down. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
  • Photo courtesy of Flickr/Paul Sableman
  • A St. Louis County ordinance targeting landlords with four units or fewer has been struck down.

A controversial "residential rental license" ordinance approved by the St. Louis County Council in 2015 amid criticism that it circumvented the justice system while targeting tenants with unfair evictions has been struck down by a judge, who ruled that (surprise!) it circumvents the justice system and violates the constitutional right to due process.

The ordinance, which was aimed at addressing problem tenants, applied only to landlords renting properties with four or fewer units in unincorporated St. Louis County. The law obligated landlords to apply for a yearly license — and threatened to strip them of their rights to rent out their property if they failed to evict problem tenants.

But St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Gloria Clark Reno found serious problems in the enforcement provision, which empowered the director of the county's transportation department to order evictions and punish landlords who failed to see them through.

According to the ordinance, a landlord could be ordered to evict any tenant whose actions on the property lead to a conviction or guilty plea to a felony involving drugs, guns, gambling, prostitution or alcoholic beverages.

However, the eviction order did not include a way for the tenant or landlord to appeal — a problematic absence that put too much power in the hands of the county staffer, the judge found.

"This failure to provide an opportunity for a property owner to appear, be heard, and defend his interests prior to the taking of a valuable, protectable property interest violates the due process clause," Reno wrote.

The licensing ordinance, Reno's ruling continued, was also "impermissibly vague" on key instructions for how landlords were supposed to initiate the evictions. Further, the ordinance's stated punishment for landlords who did not comply with an eviction order violated limitations set in state law.

The ruling came after a lawsuit by the St. Louis Association of Realtors, but ordinance had drawn widespread condemnation by an uncommon coalition of civil rights groups, lawyers and organizations representing landlords.

Jerry Hopping, a landlord with properties in unincorporated St. Louis County, says he feels vindicated by the judge's ruling, but he wishes that the concerns of the law's many critics had been heeded sooner.

"They didn't listen, and the result is, it cost St. Louis County taxpayers a bunch of legal fees that did not need to happen," he says.

Judge Reno's ruling can be read in full here.

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