Just ahead of the April 6 mayoral election in St. Louis, campaign finance filings show that the city’s real-estate and construction industries may have a favorite candidate. Of the more than $630,000 that Alderwoman Cara Spencer and her affiliated political action committee have raised in this campaign, at least $78,000 has come from real-estate and construction interests.
“Where her money is coming from shows her hand, really, and shows she’s willing to take money from development companies and property management companies that also finance a lot of really terrible things,” Kennard Williams, a lead organizer with Action St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Housing Defense Collective, told The Appeal.
But the industry interests haven’t put all of their support behind one candidate. According to publicly available campaign finance reports analyzed by The Appeal, the other candidate, city Treasurer Tishaura Jones, has reported around $56,000 from the same industries.
Both Jones and Spencer released their final campaign-finance reports on March 29. Since the March 2 primary, Spencer and her affiliated political-action committee reported at least $40,175 in donations from real-estate and construction employees and executives, and another $13,086 from construction unions.
In the same period, Jones and her affiliated PAC reported at least $24,550 from developers and real-estate agents (including $5,600 from an affordable-housing developer), $10,050 from construction companies, and another $11,086 from construction-related unions.
This discrepancy between the two campaigns was evident before the primary: Prior to March 2, Spencer reported at least $23,150 as having come from the real estate industry, and Jones reported $12,950.
Despite this difference, Jones has raised more money overall. Between the primary and March 29, Spencer reported receiving $277,686; in total, her campaign has received at least $634,235 in donations. Her PAC has raised $162,617.38 overall. Jones’s campaign received $333,155 between the primary and the filing deadline and $666,814 during the entire election cycle. Her PAC has brought in $204,334.41. Neither candidate responded to requests for comment.
Spencer and Jones have both fundraised heavily from small-dollar and individual donors. (Attorneys made up a significant portion of donations to both candidates.) And both have shied away from some other controversial donors, such as police unions. Both candidates have accepted small amounts of money from energy-related donors as well: During the primary race, SpirePAC, the political-action committee for St. Louis natural-gas producer Spire, Inc., gave each campaign $1,000. Spire is considering a plan to raise rates on customers after the company incurred extra costs during the February midwestern cold-snap.
This year’s mayoral race is a particularly pivotal one in St. Louis. The next mayor will have a strong say in allocating the $500 million of federal aid from the COVID-19 stimulus package passed earlier this year—an opportunity to address the emergencies of the pandemic, many of which often also have long-standing precedent.
For instance, housing rights have been at the forefront of the campaign. In January, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch warned that the glut of thousands of pending evictions could create a “tidal wave of homelessness” once the local eviction moratorium ends on April 5. Prior to the pandemic, though, local developers have exploited local property tax-abatement schemes, and, in some cases, have been able to avoid paying property taxes on expensive, luxury developments. At the same time, the St. Louis city government has struggled to fund schools and social services.
The campaign finance filings show that Spencer has taken donations from a handful of powerful St. Louis developers. She accepted $2,600 from major developer Pete Rothschild on February 24; $2,000 from downtown developer Amos Harris on March 3; $2,600 from builder (and local TV scion) Sam Koplar on March 17; and $2,500 from Victor Alston, the CEO of a development firm called LuxLiving.
In May 2020, city officials expressed concern after LuxLiving built a $30 million property in the city’s Central West End neighborhood, received a full tax abatement for 20 years from the city, and then sold the property to a San Francisco investment firm for $44 million. For years, St. Louis residents have complained that tax-abatements awarded to developers have been choking local city funds—especially when it comes to public schools. According to the Post-Dispatch, tax-breaks for developers cost city schools at least $35 million in 2020 alone. Earlier this year, the school board announced plans to close as many as nine public schools due to drops in enrollment and funding.
Spencer also received $2,000 from major property manager Kirk Mills, whose company, Mills Properties, has been criticized for filing numerous evictions during the pandemic. In January, the Post-Dispatch spoke to a 29-year-old father of two, who lived in one of Mills’s buildings and was facing eviction after losing two jobs during the pandemic. Since March 15, 2020, one eviction attorney who has worked on behalf of Mills Properties has filed at least 1,400 eviction claims for various clients. Mills himself has also donated to prominent conservatives, including Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and former President Donald Trump.
Jones accepted at least $5,600 in donations from executives at the development firm McCormack, Baron, Salazar, which specializes in affordable and mixed-income housing projects, $2,600 from real-estate magnate and political insider Steven Stogel, and $7,600 in combined PAC and campaign donations from Michael Staenberg, who co-founded the development firm THF Realty with billionaire sports owner Stan Kroenke. (Kroenke is arguably the single most-hated person in St. Louis after moving the St. Louis Rams NFL franchise to Los Angeles in 2016.)
On nearly every policy matter, Jones has consistently run to Spencer’s left. Spencer, for example, says she will push the city to find alternatives to policing and close the Workhouse, the city’s most notorious jail, by ending a contract to hold federal detainees there. Jones has committed to much of the same, but has also committed to ending cash bail and to decriminalizing sex work.
Similarly, advocates say Jones’s housing policy proposals also go a step further than Spencer’s. In interviews with the Post-Dispatch editorial board, the two candidates laid out differing visions for how the city ought to handle housing insecurity. Jones largely focused on ways to help renters. She stated the city’s biggest issue is “a lack of affordable, safe, and quality housing” citywide and said she would push the city to create more affordable-housing units.
“We need a Tenant’s Bill of Rights to make sure that landlords are held accountable when they are not providing quality units or making repairs, or also that there are rules in play when they decide to increase rent to a place where people can’t afford them,” she said.
Spencer said that she believes the city’s biggest housing issue is the number of vacant properties, which drive down real-estate prices and discourage investment in neighborhoods, including historically Black areas of the city. Spencer also said she would “go after” absentee landlords and land speculators while addressing crime in the city.
“We have got to get serious about addressing vacancy within our neighborhoods,” she said.
Both candidates have committed to ending the current mayor’s policy of dismantling homeless encampments during the pandemic. But Jones is the only candidate to say she would commit to extending the city’s eviction moratorium. Jones has also committed to increasing the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
The two candidates also have proposed different ways to spend the $500 million in federal stimulus funds: Jones has proposed using much of that money to provide affordable housing, rental assistance, and a targeted basic-income program; Spencer has proposed using some of that money for a “home-ownership down-payment program,” which will provide 1,000 renters up to $15,000 to put toward a down-payment on a home. Spencer would also give $15,000 to as many as 2,000 properties for home repairs, and up to $50,000 to 1,000 homes for “gut rehabs.” And she is calling for the city to spend $25,000 per property to rehabilitate half of the buildings owned by the city Land Reutilization Authority, which maintains thousands of vacant and blighted properties around the city. Critics have suggested Spencer’s plans focus too heavily on the needs of wealthier residents and existing homeowners and not enough on renters.
“I think the money tells us where priorities lie more than anything else,” Kennard Williams, of Action St. Louis, told The Appeal. “And in this time, when we’re in a crisis facing massive numbers of evictions in areas all across the city, which are affecting disproportionately Black and brown families—and more particularly a lot of Black women get affected the most by this—it’s very telling to see where somebody’s political priorities are.”