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The Future of Housing in St. Louis Hinges on the Mayoral Race

Whether the city will do more to keep people in their homes or simply do more of the same depends on who voters elect as the next mayor.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

Like so many cities across the country, St. Louis is facing a looming eviction crisis. Once federal and local eviction moratoria expire, thousands of people could lose their homes—and the city already lacks affordable housing and can’t adequately care for its unsheltered population.

Whether the city will do more to keep people in their homes or simply do more of the same depends on who voters elect as the next mayor. St. Louis’s current mayor, Lyda Krewson, isn’t seeking a second term, so voters will choose between four candidates—city treasurer Tishaura Jones, Board of Alders president Lewis Reed, Alderperson Cara Spencer, and utility executive Andrew Jones (no relation to the treasurer)—in a primary election tomorrow. For the first time this year, St. Louisans can vote for as many candidates as they like in the primary. The two candidates with the most votes will go on to a runoff to decide the next mayor on April 6.

“We need a mayor who will address these issues in a serious manner and in a manner that treats people with dignity and respect,” said Kennard Williams, a lead organizer with Action St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Housing Defense Collective. Williams said the next administration needs to “pass a stimulus package that puts money in people’s hands, not to a large nonprofit or anyone overseeing this CARES Act money” and work with the Circuit Court to extend the local eviction moratorium.

Tishaura Jones is the only candidate who has said she would work with the courts to extend the local eviction moratorium, which expires April 5. Andrew Jones said he doesn’t support extending an eviction moratorium out of concern that it could cause landlords to lose income. Spencer and Reed did not respond when asked for their stances on the issue. 

Williams said that, while extending the moratorium is crucial at a time when people must stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the next mayor needs to go further to help renters. “Passing a recurring stimulus would help so many people out,” he said.

Spencer, Tishaura Jones, and Andrew Jones all said during a recent forum that they supported using federal funds to provide rent relief to people who are struggling to pay rent during the pandemic. Reed did not respond and does not specify on his campaign website if the rental relief efforts he supports would be federally funded.

Spencer said if she were elected mayor she would prioritize swiftly dispersing federal funds to the renters who need it. Andrew Jones told The Appeal that he thinks using emergency relief funds to prevent evictions “could be very helpful,” but emphasized that he thinks that funding cannot come from the city. Tishaura Jones told The Appeal the city has “previously invested in programs that provided rent relief directly to individuals, and I’d continue to fund [that].”

A coalition of 38 grassroots organizations in St. Louis, including Action STL, signed on to a comprehensive policy agenda that offers a framework for how the city can move away from policies that have contributed to racial and socioeconomic inequity. The agenda, called The People’s Plan, also endorses policies that could help lift more people out of poverty, end over-policing and mass incarceration, and keep people in their homes. 

The plan asks city leadership to treat housing as a human right by providing rent relief to tenants who have been unable to make rent payments during the pandemic, passing a strong Tenant Bill of Rights, increasing funding for the region’s continuum of care, homeless services, and temporary shelters, and fully funding the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. 

All four candidates running to become St. Louis’s next mayor have said they support a Tenant Bill of Rights (which would need to be passed by the Board of Alderman or state Legislature), and would continue to fund the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund at at least the current level, though Reed and Tishaura Jones have said they would work to increase the amount of funding the trust receives. The city currently budgets over $6.5 million for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which helps create more affordable housing in the city and provides funding for rent, utility, and mortgage assistance programs.

Krewson’s administration has gone against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by repeatedly dismantling homeless encampments during the pandemic, forcing residents to disperse throughout the city. When the city recently experienced freezing weather, local advocates rushed to set up temporary no-barrier shelters to help keep hundreds of people out of the cold. When advocates requested funding for such shelter from the city months earlier, they were reportedly told they were “not your personal piggy bank” and sought private funding instead.

Spencer, Tishaura Jones, and Andrew Jones have said they wouldn’t continue the current administration’s policy of sweeping homeless encampments during the pandemic. Reed did not respond to several requests for comment and did not address the issue on his campaign website.

Reed, who has said that he experienced homelessness as a teenager, said that he would create permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities and other special needs. Spencer has said the city ought to pursue a housing-first approach to homelessness, which prioritizes giving people housing without requirements that can create barriers for people experiencing homelessness, like requirements that people come alone or be substance free.

Tishaura Jones has also said she would prioritize low-barrier housing, and said she would work with the city’s service providers to ensure that there are enough shelter beds and temporary shelters available for emergency situations, like the recent extreme cold weather.

Krewson’s administration spent about $600,000 in federal relief money on 50 tiny homes for people experiencing homelessness. Some housing advocates have criticized the move, saying that money could have been spent on shelters without such restrictions. And the tiny home village does not provide residents with any assistance to manage substance use issues or behavioral health problems.

Jones says she would prioritize making sure people at the tiny home village receive wraparound social services—like medical care and financial literacy courses—to help the people living there “rebuild their lives.”

“Over the last year, Krewson has gone on a campaign busting up these encampments, throwing people’s things out, ticketing. It’s bad,” Williams said. “A real solution would be putting more money into solving this issue. … We need money put into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and we need money put into our homeless services to help these people.”