St. Louis needs a Tenant’s Bill of Rights

From the St. Louis American

Read original story here

For a city of renters and landlords, St. Louis isn’t very good at it. Yet.

I’ve heard from many people about the housing conditions of some Syrian refugees in our community. They complain of mice, bed bugs, ants, lack of screens on their windows and more. They say they don’t know what to do about it.

Of course, this problem also exists outside of the refugee population and affects many city neighborhoods.

As of 2014, more than half of the city’s housing was occupied by renters, accounting for about 78,000 units. The same data shows that 35 percent of renters in the city have a household income below $15,000, and about 66 percent of renters have a household income less than $35,000. A little over 40 percent of renters have a high school diploma or less.

In short, more than half of our city lives in rental housing, and of that number, over one-third are living near poverty.

But immigrants and poor people aren’t the city’s only renters. Increasingly, young people who are neither new to the country nor poor are passing up home ownership in favor of less permanent tenancy. All of them – and the owners of their buildings – have rights.

It is in our city’s strong interest to protect and enhance residential property values by paying much more attention than we do now to landlords – and their tenants – whose conduct erodes our safety.

For the most part, landlord and tenants’ rights are set by state statute. Missouri’s laws generally favor landlords. Other places do better. There are many policies that other states have put into place that allow tenants to have more rights or more access to their rights.

The Right to Housing Alliance in Baltimore has created a Renters’ Bill of Human Rights that outlines tenants’ rights to non-discrimination, equity, organizing, transparency, and peace and dignity. Arizona has made it mandatory for landlords to provide tenants with a list of their rights when they sign the lease. Ohio has outlined a process for tenants to pursue legal action when landlords have not made necessary repairs in 30 days.

The City of St. Louis has an ordinance that adds local protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation to the roster of protections in state law. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but we can do more. Some of the biggest problems that tenants have is that renters simply do not know what their rights are or how to address problems they face.

Organizations like ArchCity Defenders, Beyond Housing, Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council and the International Institute already educate people about their rights, provide opportunities and legal counsel, and organize communities to achieve better outcomes. I am grateful to them every day for what they do for us.

But city government needs to play a larger role than it now does to protect the rights of 161,000 or so residents.

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