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Councilman proposes requiring occupancy permits for all homes


March 09, 2005 - By SCOTT MILLER

Staff Reporter

Proposed residential occupancy permits in unincorporated St. Louis County rekindled much of the same debate at a public hearing last week, but also triggered a suggestion that such permits be required for all homes, not just rentals.

For more than two years, the County Council has discussed re-quiring occupancy permits for non-owner occupied rental properties. Proponents say it would clean up run-down, ill-maintained apartment complexes by requiring regular inspections. But opponents say the measure is discriminatory because it only applies to rental units and it will discourage real estate investment.

County Executive Charlie Dooley has asked the council to hear the debate again, and Councilman Skip Mange, R-Town and Country, suggested the program include owner-occupied homes as well, eliminating any alleged discrimination.

"I don't believe it is correct to require occupancy permits to only one designated unit, only non-owner occupied units," Mange said. "That's discriminatory. If we're going to do it at all, my opinion, we need to do it for everybody.

"I think occupancy permits are a good idea," he continued. "The reason for it is to protect the housing stock, keep the housing stock up and not let it deteriorate."

Mange's recommendation also would exempt newly constructed or renovated houses for 10 years and limit inspections to every three years unless the director of the Department of Public Works dubs a unit a "problem facility" meriting frequent inspections. If the county is unable to make an inspection within three days of the request, a tenant could move in anyway, curbing a potential delay in renting.

But Dooley's request would impact rental properties only, and Garry Earls, director of the Department of Public Works, told the council, "We do not recommend this expansion of this program (to include owner-occupied homes) at this time.

"One of the things we were trying to do is be conservative in our government," he said. "What we want to do is take care of what we believe is the bulk of the problem — 80 percent of the problem is in 20 percent of the property."

Earls also didn't favor the three-year limit on inspections.

Based on Dooley's proposal, landlords would pay a $40 permit fee for multifamily units and $80 for single-family units to have the property inspected every time a new tenant is scheduled to take occupancy, not just every three years.

Increasing the rental occupancy permit requirement beyond property conservation districts would cost the county about $800,000, Earls previously told the Call.

About 10 additional people would be needed to assist the four county inspectors working now.

If the county required all residences to have inspections, it would need a staff of 20 to 25 people, Mange said.

Still, permit fees should cover the cost of the program, Earls said.

Meanwhile, last week's public hearing brought in the same crowd it has in the past — landlords, church groups and a handful of residents.

"The last thing I want to see happen is my property value decrease," said Jim Heiser, vice president of the St. Louis Real Estate Investors Association. "I have renters right next door to me ... You only hear of the few bad landlords and that taints it for everybody."

"Your proposed ordinance obviously violates the Fourth Amendment (of search and seizure)," said Don Benski, president of the St. Louis Real Estate Investors Association. "If being unconstitutional isn't enough, this ordinance that you are proposing creates two classes of people. It creates a homeowner class that can move about the county freely without government interference, and it creates a class who must get the government's permission before they may move into their home. In order to get this permission, they must give up their rights and permit their homes to be searched.

"Forty-one years after Dr. (Martin Luther) King's 'I have a dream' speech," he continued, "I am amazed, concerned and disgusted that you would consider creating second-class citizens in this county."

Members of the Isaiah cluster of Metropolitan Congregations United, however, said occupancy permits would protect renters from unsafe living conditions.

"I can't tell you the number of times I have walked the streets of north county and south county and I have seen people having to live in these horrible conditions," said Gail Gelker of the MCU. "One of the worst situations I have ever seen is on Gravois Road where 20 families live in an apartment complex that literally had no heat during the winter, no hot water to take a bath and, lastly, there was actual debris bubbling out of the sidewalk that nobody would want to step on. To me, this is unfair. It is unjust."

In addition, deteriorating living conditions are driving people out of the first-tier suburbs, she said.

"We've lost population already," Gelker said. "We have to protect that housing stock."

Some proponents said they would support permits on owner-occupied units if it was the only way to establish an inspection process, but others said they only supported occupancy permits for non-owner occupied residences.

Some opponents supported an across-the-board permit requirement while others did not.

County Council Chairman John Campisi, R-south county, put the matter under advisement with no indication when or if the council would introduce legislation.

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