The Webster Groves City Council on Oct. 1 gave two readings to a bill to revamp the city’s Fair Housing Code, strengthening anti-discrimination laws for tenants living in rental properties.
Mayor Gerry Welch said the legislation could become a model for similar actions in other communities. The law creates a more effective way for the city to challenge discrimination in housing.
A final vote on the bill is set for Oct. 15.
The legislation includes a new provision to prevent landlords from discriminating against tenants based on certain sources of income. For example, a landlord couldn’t refuse a tenant based on Section 8 federal funds. Section 8 authorizes the payment of rental housing assistance to private landlords on behalf of low-income households.
“This will be a very effective way of dealing with source of income discrimination issues,” Welch said.
Council Member Laura Arnold, who advocated for the changes in the law, said that “source of income shouldn’t be a reason why anyone is excluded” from renting properties in the city. She said Webster Groves “is a place open and accessible to anyone.” Arnold praised the change that made the law cover all landlords, no matter the number of units that are owned.
City Attorney Neil Bruntrager said that the city’s current $500 fine for discrimination regarding rental tenants generally doesn’t deter such activity.
“But, if we shut them down, that will get their attention,” he said.
He suggested the city set up an operating licensing requirement for all landlords — rather than the current requirement for landlords only operating multi-unit rental properties — tied to occupancy permits. There is no cost for landlords to obtain annual licensing.
In the case of clear and convincing evidence of source-of-income discrimination, the city could remove a landlord’s license until problems are corrected and ordinances complied with, Bruntrager said.
“No other local municipality does this,” Bruntrager said, adding that he suspected some landlord associations “may take umbrage, we may get challenges” to the law.
“Landlords would be put on notice of possible revocation when applying for licensing. It would be a strong deterrent effect to any discriminatory housing practices to say the city is watching and would pull a license,” Bruntrager said.
The plan would not affect a tenant, as it would not pull an occupancy permit over infractions by a landlord.
Arnold said she had spoken with officials of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, and “they appreciated the hard work done on this enforcement mechanism.”
Webster Groves resident Lexie O’Brien said she supported the council and those in the community who advocating for affordable housing in Webster Groves.
“When source of income protection was discussed at the St. Louis County Council, I heard some say it would be an infringement on landlords rights. I disagree,” O’Brien said.
“Ensuring equal access isn’t an infringement on property rights. Social Security, disability, Section 8, or other aid doesn’t indicate someone would be a bad tenant, and a person’s source of income shouldn’t preclude them from applying. In the interest of equality and civil rights, we bar discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc. If we aspire to foster diversity and inclusion, we must remove barriers to living in our community,” O’Brien said.
Forum On Housing
The Webster Groves City Council will host a town hall meeting on Thursday, Nov. 21, 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the Webster Groves School District facility, 3232 S. Brentwood Blvd. in Webster Groves.
The town hall meeting will focus on housing.