St. Louis's Aldermen Are Embittered By Your Happiness

St. Louis's Aldermen Are Embittered By Your Happiness
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ST. LOUIS – “Puritanism,” said H.L. Mencken, is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

In this historic river city, the unanimously socialist Board of Aldermen is driven by a haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be operating an innovative business that has not been regulated or taxed into extinction.

When I was born here in 1955, the city was densely populated. About 850,000 people were crowded into a tight urban space. Today the population within the same city limits is estimated below 300,000. The everyday scenes of my joyous childhood in north St. Louis have become post-apocalyptic moonscapes.

The wholesome attractions of more space and greenery and newer houses in the suburbs, as well as the destructive racism of “white flight,” were among the early reasons for the exodus from the city – an independent jurisdiction not belonging to any county -- into outlying St. Louis County during the late 1950s and 1960s. An entirely suburban enclave, St. Louis County from 1950 to 2000 grew from 400,000 to more than 1,000,000. Since the turn of the 21st century, the population of St. Louis County actually has shrunk and is now about 950,000.

Since 1950, the national population has more than doubled, from 152,000,000 to about 325,000,000. But the combined population of the independent City of St. Louis and surrounding St. Louis County today is about the same, or perhaps even smaller, than in 1950.

I left home in 1973 after high school for university studies out of state. Then I pursued a career in journalism and politics and public relations that led me to a long residence in the nation’s capital and later a fascinating six-year stint living in Saudi Arabia and working for the oil giant Aramco.

In 2015, when I reached Aramco’s remarkably young mandatory retirement age of 60 (it’s a function of Saudi domestic demographics and social policy), I had to leave that company. I had other opportunities in Saudi Arabia, but home beckoned.

I persuaded my wife and our young daughter to agree to move back not to the East Coast but to my native St. Louis – a place they had never lived before. We all have a need for roots, and I want my daughter to experience the excellent quality of family and community and cultural and educational life that makes St. Louis, for all of its shortcomings, a treasure. We moved not to the suburbs but to an old neighborhood in the city.

We were aware of some of what would be in store for us in relocating to St. Louis. We knew very well about the hollowing out of the inner city and the stagnation of metropolitan growth. But we also were encouraged by signs of renewal, notably a much-hyped scene for development of start-up companies – at least of the glamorous kinds such as biotechnology.

We were not, however, quite prepared for some of the antagonism towards simple common sense and the benefits of free markets that we found in the case of petty but devastating local government over-regulation. As world travelers, we have been frequent and very satisfied guests in Airbnb accommodations. For ground transportation when we travel, Uber has been an indispensable convenience and money-saver.

It is hard to exaggerate the shock we encountered in 2015 in learning that Uber, Lyft and comparable enterprises were against the law in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

It was shameful that St. Louis was the last large metropolitan area in the United States to maintain an effective ban on Uber and Lyft. Local politicians were bought and paid for by the taxicab companies, and they refused to budge.

There was much more economic freedom in Saudi Arabia than in St. Louis!

Maybe there was more transparency, too. Some nights I lie awake and reproach myself: Why didn’t I accept the offer from that chemical company in Riyadh?

It took action by the Missouri state legislature, dominated by rural free-market conservative Republicans, to pre-empt the Democratic machine’s anti-business local ordinances in metro St. Louis before Uber and comparable services were allowed to operate and provide their extraordinary benefits for transportation, employment, and increased income in my old home town.

Since 2015, Airbnb and comparable services have grown tremendously in Missouri – and the overwhelming majority of the business is in the city of St. Louis. This new industry provides unprecedented convenience and positive travel experiences for business and personal travelers. As the short-term rental industry in Missouri has grown exponentially, Airbnb has arranged to collect taxes for the state, the city of St. Louis, and other municipalities. The industry now is providing significant income to families as well as a great deal of revenue to the state and municipal treasuries. Already, the big revenue winner is the government of the city of St. Louis.

Good news, eh? Not for the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

The aldermen are pushing forward a city ordinance that would effectively shut down Airbnb and other short-term rentals. Why? Who knows? Maybe they are sore about the state government pre-empting them from outlawing Uber. Or maybe it’s just an ideological consistency for doing everything wrong for the local economy.

The proposed city law – let’s call it the “Euthanize Airbnb Ordinance” --would limit short-term rentals to 30 days per stay and 120 total days a year. The proposal also calls for annual city inspections and for violators to receive a maximum $500 fine, up to 90-days in jail, or both.

Want to become a Superhost in St. Louis? Better get a criminal defense lawyer and a bail bondsman, and prepare to go to jail anyway.

Airbnb hosts say the ordinance would put them out of business.

St. Louis Airbnb host Ivan Wine is unhappy about the threat of jail and the threat to his livelihood. He rents two rooms in his house. It’s his only source of income during a dry spell of freelance work. He told St. Louis Public Radio he’s worried about losing it all.

“I’d only be able to rent like two days, here and there, a month,” he said. “Yeah, it would not work. I wouldn’t be able to do this. Airbnb would not be a viable option.”

“Working from home is my only real viable option," he said. "So, one of the things that concerns me with the whole legislation is that I would no longer be able to independently take care of my bills."

He wants to fight as a citizen lobbyist to save Airbnb from euthanasia, but he suffers from multiple sclerosis. He doesn’t have the health or strength to fight for his interests. Neither jail nor destitution is a good place to go, with or without multiple sclerosis. Fortunately, the new grassroots group St. Louis Metro Airbnb Hosts is rallying to the cause.

Riding to the rescue in the state capitol is Republican Rep. Derek Grier, from an affluent suburb remote from the city. Airbnb is virtually nonexistent in his district, but he has the interests of the entire state – and even a cruelly unrequited love for the city of St. Louis -- at heart. He has introduced HB 473. Like the legislation that lifted the St. Louis ban on Uber, his bill would pre-empt St. Louis and any other Missouri municipality from regulating the short-term rental industry into extinction.

Killing Airbnb in St. Louis is insane and immoral for many reasons. One is that it would stifle rehabilitation and maintenance of our venerable but endangered housing stock, our beautiful architectural patrimony. Worse, it would rob income from working families that want to work even harder for the sake of their children and communities.

The plight of Ivan Wine shows that the Missouri General Assembly faces a stark choice. If it fails to pre-empt municipalities from euthanizing Airbnb, it should prepare to face higher costs for Medicaid and other welfare programs. For some, hosting an Airbnb is an enjoyable hobby. For many Missourians, it is the lifeline helping families and individuals make ends meet and keeping them off public assistance.

All city officials love tax revenue. The psychosis of the St. Louis aldermen is apparent in that they willfully would destroy a strong and growing source of city tax revenue in order to achieve something they desire even more than money: destruction of citizens’ freedom.

By way of analogy to the Interstate Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, the General Assembly of Missouri has a duty to citizens and taxpayers to promote common-sense freedom for small businesses. Missouri has problems of competitiveness already. Surely it will stagnate if it persists in being a patchwork of petty fiefdoms that strangle intrastate, and for that matter, interstate, commerce.

Lovers of liberty, economic opportunity and growth, and basic decency everywhere will have a cause to celebrate if the Missouri legislature decides to make some socialist aldermen, somewhere in St. Louis City Hall, unhappy.

Joseph P. Duggan is CEO of C-Suite Strategic Counsel, public affairs consultants.

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