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County rental properties law deemed unconstitutional

By: Jim Merkel

A two-year-long battle against a county law requiring licenses for residential landlords is over, after a judge declared it unconstitutional.

The law passed in 2015 by the St. Louis County Council was meant to deal with the issue of problem properties and tenants in unincorporated St. Louis County. It required all owners of residential rental properties in unincorporated St. Louis County to get a license each year before they could rent property.

In declaring the law unconstitutional, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Gloria Clark Reno mentioned requirements that the director of transportation may order landlords to evict people who are convicted of, or plead guilty to, felonies committed on their property including prostitution, illegal gambling and drug, alcohol and firearms violations.

The law also said landlords may lose their licenses if they don’t fix a maintenance violation within 30 days of being notified, are delinquent in paying a rental property maintenance fine or have more than two license suspensions within any 12-month period.

The law became effective Dec. 31, 2015; however, on Dec. 29. 2015, the St. Louis Association of Realtors sued the county asking for a judgment and restraining order against the measure. A temporary restraining order was granted on Jan. 7, 2016, and a preliminary injunction was granted on April 25, 2017.

Reno ruled that the ordinance violates the constitution’s due process clause, which prohibits the taking of life, liberty or property without due process. She also ruled that it is vague and is preempted by Missouri state law.

Among the landlords who are pleased with the outcome is Jerry Hopping. He’s a real estate broker and manager of residential rental properties for himself and others in the St. Louis area, including unincorporated St. Louis County. He’s also the leader of a group called the Missouri Property Rights Coalition.

“You basically need to be babysitters for your tenants,” Hopping said. “I don’t want to come across as pro-felon,” he said, adding that landlords would like to work with the county to reach solutions.

The county can cite problem properties for such things as tall grass, siding falling off, rubbish, safety violations and overcrowding, Hopping said. “We had tried to meet with them up front. We’ve got solutions or ideas. We would still like to meet with them,” he said.

Cordell Whitlock, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Stenger, said the county wouldn’t appeal the ruling. “The court has spoken,” he said.

Whitlock also said the county would be willing to work with landlords. “Obviously, we’re open to transparent government that welcomes public input,” he said.

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