2019 News

Developments in the Fight for Fair, Affordable Housing in the St. Louis Region

Photo by Alvin Engler on Unsplash.

For families trying to find affordable housing, options can be scarce. But recently enacted policies may offer relief in the St. Louis region.

On Wednesday, by a 4 to 3 vote, the St. Louis County Council approved legislation to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund with proceeds from the sale of medical marijuana. The county executive voted in favor of the measure and is expected to sign it.

The fund would prioritize the needs of single-parent families with children, households earning less than $35,000, older adults, and households experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness, especially households with children.

Molly Metzger

“Stable homes are a necessary component of healthy communities. This is an issue that affects all of us, whether or not we are directly experiencing a housing crisis,” said Molly Metzger, faculty director of Inclusive Housing with the Center for Social Development in the Brown School at Washington University.

A local expert on affordable housing and co-editor of “Facing Segregation: Housing Policy Solutions for a Stronger Society,” Metzger testified on the trust fund bill, citing her research showing housing instability’s effects on children.

In many schools serving low-income families, she said, “more than half the kids are entering or leaving the school in the middle of the school year.” “Housing transitions coupled with school transitions are a major challenge for everyone involved. Students in these circumstances aren’t fully able to develop relationships with their teachers and meet their full potential.”

Sponsored by Councilwoman Lisa Clancy and Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, the ordinance draws upon a report from the county’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund Task Force, which released its recommendations in April.

The City of St. Louis created such a fund in 2000. Testifying before the County Council, Gary Newcomer said, “We’ve looked at the trust find in the City of St. Louis and found that it raised $17 for every $1 invested, which is a pretty good return.” Newcomer is director of operations with the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis.

Passage of the county bill marks another step in a trend across the St. Louis region.

In August, the City of Clayton amended its Human Rights Code to add “source of income” to “race, color, religion,” and the other groupings in the city’s list of protected classes. The amendments make it illegal to discriminate in the terms of a sale or rental because of income source, to mischaracterize the availability of housing on that basis and to advertise a preference because of a potential occupant’s source of income.

The City of Webster Groves followed suit in October. Like those in Clayton, the measures in Webster Groves make it illegal to refuse to sell or rent housing because of an individual’s source of income. Both municipalities criminalized the use of source-of-income information for block busting. Violating the Webster Groves ordinance could cost landlords their operating license. In Clayton, violators face a $500 fine.

In St. Louis County, affordable housing advocates cheered the April 2019 introduction of a similar source-of-income proposal, which built upon a recommendation in the Ferguson Commission’s 2015 report. The sponsor, Councilwoman Clancy, withdrew the bill in August, acknowledging opposition and the need to build a countywide consensus.

“Research shows that people who are aware of the history of structural racism in housing are more likely to support these sorts of measures, so education is a critical piece of the puzzle,” said Metzger, who testified in support of the withdrawn bill and advised policymakers in the development of the measure enacted by Webster Groves.

Courtesy of St. Louis County.

So-called source-of-income laws have been around since at least the early 1970s but did not come to Missouri until 2003, when the City of St. Louis passed its own measure. In 2015, the city added language to specifically protect people with Section 8 and forms of other rental assistance.

Housing advocates will be watching efforts to implement the region’s new policies. The city’s experience with the policy suggests that awareness and enforcement are key.

Despite explicit prohibitions against rental advertising with messages like “No Section 8,” a 2019 report by the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council found that such practices continue. The organization discussed the county source-of-income measure at its 2019 meeting, which CSD sponsored and co-organized.

Despite the St. Louis region’s reputation for high levels of segregation, the new measures suggest momentum in the region’s struggle for inclusive housing and offer hope to families in search of accommodation.