11/28/2023 | Press release | Archived content
Complete text from the first Legislative Report of the President as prepared for delivery.
Good evening and thank you for joining me for what I hope will become an annual tradition at the Board of Aldermen.
Tonight, I want to share the progress city lawmakers have made during my first year as President of the Board of Aldermen and highlight the work that still lies ahead.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank each of my colleagues at the board for their faithful commitment to making our city better, safer, and stronger for all residents. I also want to extend my appreciation to city departments, advocates, and local organizations for their partnership in the legislative process. Your knowledge deepened the board's understanding of the challenges we face in our city, and broadened our thinking about the policy solutions we must explore in order to make it better.
What struck me about St. Louis when I moved here nearly 20 years ago was its history as a place that urged the nation to make progress on critical social issues. Not far from where I am today, Dred and Harriet Scott won their freedom at the old courthouse-igniting a human rights movement that challenged our country to live up to its founding principles for all people. And in our lifetime, after the tragic murder of Michael Brown Jr, we witnessed the growth of a national movement-elevating our collective understanding of race and class in America.
Our city's history is also tied to the labor movement. At a time when the railroad industry was the backbone of our city's economy, its windfall came at the expense of working class people. The working poor-including men, women and even children-had no choice but to endure unsafe working conditions, long hours and little pay. But in 1877, even as the roots of systemic poverty were growing deeper, people in our city organized across trades to fight against harsh labor practices.
Machinists, canners, coopers and wire workers walked off the job in support of railroad workers whose pay was being cut during a period of extreme financial hardship. Workers demanded fair pay, safe conditions and reasonable hours. Recognizing that a rising tide lifts all boats-they pushed the railroad industry to the right side of history knowing others would follow, much like our brothers and sisters in the UAW are doing today. At the time, together, workers brought major industries in our city to a standstill-demonstrating the power of collective action and setting a decades-long precedent for organized labor across the country.
Like those city residents who endeavored to make change before us, today's residents are equally ready to unite against conditions and policies that have sustained inequity. Poverty has always been a policy choice in this country-even in our own city.
Tonight, I'm proud to say that St. Louis is choosing progress.
We're learning from our past to fulfill our city's potential. By making quality affordable housing a reality for all, we can give families and communities the ability to plan for their futures. By making our streets safer, we can ensure that all city residents return to their loved ones at night. By investing in people first, we can make our neighborhoods stronger and our city a better place to live.
The change I'm describing is only possible when we leverage cooperation-not only among officials at City Hall, but also between elected officials and the communities we serve. When we make change together, when we govern together, we make life in our city more fulfilling for those who live here.
Like many of you, my understanding of the world was shaped by my parents. My mom and dad were proud teachers and union members. From an early age, they helped me see how close we all are to the poverty line-that too many of us find ourselves in impossible situations.
Low wage jobs, substandard housing, and the high cost of medical treatment keep the American dream out of reach for so many families and individuals. And children living in those circumstances can't shatter expectations or defy the odds if they're hungry or have nowhere to sleep at night.
When my dad was a teenager, his family spent years in and out of homelessness. No one knew that a student who was at the top of his class was sleeping in cars at night or in pay by the week hotels when his family could afford it. Constantly moving and switching schools made a lasting impression on my dad. While he eventually put himself through college and became a university professor, he never shied away from using his own experience to advocate for others.
My dad broke the cycle of poverty in his family-making sure the next generation had the stability and access to opportunities he never had. I'm grateful for how things turned out and I'm incredibly proud of my dad.
I'm also aware that his story-one that we often hold up as an example-is an exception rather than the rule.
For most of us, self-reliance isn't enough on its own to overcome the compounding nature of poverty. Those of us who are fortunate can turn to our families and communities for help. But for those who can't, I believe we have an obligation to build a pathway out of poverty-one that begins with stable housing.
Stable housing is the baseline for economic mobility, but a lack of affordable housing continues to be a growing problem for many residents. Limited housing supply and insufficient development have caused home prices and rents to rise-locking would-be homeowners out of the market and widening economic disparities in our city. Fifty-six percent of our residents are renters; and for them, the threat of eviction is an unsettling reality. More than twelve hundred residents find themselves without a place to live and with only twelve shelters in our city, it takes, on average, four hundred days for an individual to secure permanent housing. Older residents struggle to maintain their homes. Often on a fixed income, expensive repairs mean those residents are faced with leaving their homes or living in substandard housing. And here, in our city, one in five public school students are unhoused or face housing insecurity, meaning some students have difficulty prioritizing their education-a factor we know is a key determinant of economic opportunities and health outcomes.
Knowing this, the board established a Right to Counsel program earlier this year. Right to Counsel levels the playing field in eviction cases by giving tenants access to legal representation. That program ensures renters who qualify maintain their housing by putting an end to unnecessary evictions and the irreparable harm created by an eviction record.
I want to thank my colleague, Alderwoman of the 10th Ward Shameem Clark Hubbard, for her leadership on this bill. After the winter recess, we will build on her work by creating a rental registry program, allowing us to hold landlords accountable for the properties they own and manage. And we'll go further by creating an impacted tenants fund for renters facing eviction because their landlord has failed to maintain safe living conditions. Renters shouldn't shoulder the financial burden of displacement because of their landlord's negligence.
Earlier this year I promised this would be the year of the tenant-and I meant it.
The Board also created the city's first Guaranteed Basic Income Program to provide a financial cushion to families enrolled in St. Louis Public Schools. Sixty-four percent of Americans don't have enough money on hand to cover a four hundred dollar emergency expense-meaning most of us are one medical emergency, costly repair, or traffic ticket away from having our lives upended. Families in this pilot program will receive eighteen monthly payments of five hundred dollars. Studies show that families use these payments to subsidize the cost of housing, pay down debt or pursue higher paying jobs.
I want to commend Mayor Jones and Treasurer Layne for championing and administering this program and I'm happy to say, tonight, that the first payments are scheduled to reach families ahead of the Christmas holiday.
We'll also make sure that people's hard earned money covers essential needs by wiping out medical debt for those who need it the most. We know medical debt follows individuals and families-a reality that has only worsened during the pandemic. Medical debt has a crippling effect and makes planning for the future virtually impossible. By using eight hundred thousand dollars in American Rescue Plan funding, we can wipe out nearly eighty million dollars in medical debt. This policy builds on recent federal rules which bar unpaid medical bills from affecting people's credit scores and it guarantees that no one in our city will have to choose between covering their rent or mortgage payment or paying down debt from a necessary medical treatment.
Alongside these efforts, the Board is taking steps to increase affordable housing in our city. Last month, the board approved more than eighteen million dollars in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly fifteen and a half million of which has been set aside for affordable housing development, housing preservation, and critical home repair programs-all of which keep people housed and keep properties from falling off the market.
We also know the role short term rental properties play in our neighborhoods. For years, out-of-state property owners have been allowed to take homes off the market without considering the lasting effects this has on our communities. With new regulations approved by the Board of Aldermen earlier this year, our city can better manage their impact and hold large landlords accountable when mismanagement of their properties disrupt our neighborhoods.
I want to thank my friend and colleague, Aldermen of the 4th Ward Bret Narayan, for getting this bill across the finish line after many, many, many years of work.
As we pursue policies that keep people in their homes and expand access to affordable housing, we must remain equally committed to building a pathway toward housing for those without a place to live.
We need to recognize that twelve shelters in our city is not nearly enough to meet the needs of our unhoused population-particularly during the winter months. And we need to understand that finding a permanent home is a process for those with low wages, who have suffered domestic abuse, who are battling substance abuse, or who have been crippled by debt. Any one of these issues can be difficult to recover from on their own; and without housing, they are virtually impossible to overcome.
Low barrier alternatives like safe camping areas provide stability as individuals wait for shelter space to become available or as they work toward permanent housing.
Established alternatives to unintentional encampments are a critical part of a graduated approach toward permanent housing. Unintentional encampments are often unsafe because they lack basic, essential resources, but they will continue to form until we create better alternatives. A safe camping program would provide clean toilets, handwashing stations, showers, supportive services, and security-these comprehensive measures not only meet the initial threshold of basic needs but cultivate a foundation for stability.
We must enact policies that reflect the continuum of care which experts have consistently advocated for. And we need to understand that this issue isn't zero-sum. Advocating for the unhoused doesn't mean other issues are being neglected, nor does it mean that creating opportunities for them comes at the expense of other residents. This is about making our city stronger from the bottom up. Once people are safely housed, they are more likely to participate in the local economy-increasing our tax base and contributing to the critical city services all residents rely on.
The unhoused bill of rights was a critical stepping stone that brought us to this point. I want to thank Alderwoman of the 7th Ward, Alisha Sonnier, for seeing this for what it is-an opportunity to build bridges. I look forward to working with Alderwoman Sonnier and my colleagues to pass sensible solutions in the year ahead. Our most vulnerable residents are counting on us to do better.
For many of us, our home is a place we expect to be safe; our neighborhoods and streets should be a reflection of that. Last year, SLMPD wrote just over eight thousand speeding tickets and nearly three thousand tickets for signal violations. And while the homicide rate dropped twenty percent this year, we can all agree that one death in our city is too many. We also learned that neglect and misconduct at the City Justice Center led to ten deaths in two years.
CJC residents must have their basic needs met and their right to due process honored. Awaiting trial should not be a death sentence in our city.
I'm proud to say that my colleagues at the board unanimously passed reforms to strengthen the Detention Facilities Oversight Board, establishing clear guidelines which allow members of that body to do their work and hold our justice system to a higher standard. To my colleagues-Aldermen of the 14th Ward-Rasheen Aldridge and Alderwoman of the 10th Ward-Shameem Clark Hubbard-thank you for your enduring commitment to the safety, dignity, and well-being of all city residents.
The Board of Aldermen also enacted restrictions on firearms by requiring individuals to have a concealed carry permit in order to openly display a firearm on city streets. In our state, this is what progress looks like on this issue. Missouri is described by Everytown for Gun Safety-the largest gun violence prevention organization in America-as a national failure. State lawmakers continue to prioritize unchecked gun ownership over common sense measures that would save lives. But local officials in our city are committed to finding a path forward.
I want to thank Alderwoman of the 8th Ward, Cara Spencer, for her leadership on this important piece of firearm regulation. Alderwoman Spencer's work moved the conversation about firearm regulation forward and it created a dialogue about the unintended consequences of enforcement and how companion legislation would ensure that all residents know their rights before consenting to a search. I want to commend Alderman Aldrige for bringing stakeholders together to pass legislation that codifies SLMPD policies and expands residents' access to information. This is what the legislative process should look like; lawmakers can and should work together to strengthen policies that serve the public's interests. I'm grateful to both Alderwoman Spencer and Alderman Aldridge for setting an example for all of us.
In the weeks ahead, the Board is prepared to pass a series of local gun control measures in partnership with Mayor Jones' office. These bills take aim at practices that make it far too easy to obtain a firearm in our city. As important, these bills send a message to lawmakers in Jefferson City that we are prepared to do everything in our power to keep residents safe. Moreover, we are committed to changing state laws in order to return regulatory authority to the local level. The people most affected by gun violence in this state deserve to protect themselves with common sense regulations.
As we work to reduce crime through prevention, we also understand that our streets must be safer for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. Last year, the board passed the largest infrastructure spending bill in the city's history-allocating forty million dollars in American Rescue Plan Act funds to redesign city streets. Investing in infrastructure is an important first step, but it can't be the last.
The board, with the leadership of Alderman of the 3rd Ward Shane Cohn, has also introduced legislation to bring automated traffic enforcement cameras back to the city. Automated traffic enforcement cameras make enforcing traffic laws safer and allows our police department to refocus its resources. Fees collected through automated enforcement will fund the Neighborhood Traffic Safety Improvement Fund, which will pay for safety projects on residential roads and create an opportunity for individuals who violate traffic laws to take drivers education. A companion bill, set for introduction in the weeks ahead, will establish privacy protections when technology is deployed as part of the city's public safety strategy.
And thanks to Mayor Jones' leadership, the board approved a three percent raise for all city employees. Those raises allowed our city to hire twenty-nine 911 dispatchers-a much needed step in addressing staffing shortfalls that have lingered since the pandemic.
Enacting these laws-ones that will make a true difference in the lives of city residents-would not be possible without the hard work and dedication of my colleagues and staff at the Board of Aldermen.
During my first five months as President, we worked together to transform the board from twenty-eight to fourteen members and established new rules to govern a new legislative body. Just as important, we focused on properly staffing the Board of Aldermen to ensure that lawmakers stay connected with constituents while managing an ambitious agenda. That included hiring twelve legislative assistants, a legal researcher, and a financial officer to research the fiscal implications of legislative proposals.
Spearheaded by our very own Clerk Terry Kennedy, we also invested in technology upgrades which give residents the ability to participate in public hearings from home or at City Hall. We learned during the pandemic that virtual meetings lowered barriers for residents who wanted to participate in the process. Building on that work, the Board of Aldermen will seek new meeting management software next year. That software will automate transcription and archiving of all board and committee meetings, making it easier for residents to access, search, and track active legislation. I want to acknowledge and thank Clerk Kennedy for his years of service and his dedication to making our work more accessible to the public.
These changes are about creating a more transparent government and giving our legislative branch the modern tools it needs to meet the expectations of today's residents. Among those tools is an online public engagement platform that has allowed the board to connect with nearly four thousand residents since launching three months ago.
Through the CitizenLab platform, we've heard directly from residents on how they think the Rams Settlement funds should be used to transform our city.
Thanks to Treasurer Layne's management of those funds, that two hundred and fifty million dollar settlement is generating an additional eight hundred thousand dollars in interest each month. It cannot be overstated how important this opportunity is. This once-in-a-lifetime funding has the potential to expand community mobility, improve access to affordable childcare, enhance city infrastructure, and so much more.
Equally important, this process is an opportunity for local lawmakers and residents to build a stronger, more collaborative relationship. The work being done today will set the foundation for ongoing public engagement at the board. Fostering a true democratic partnership between elected officials and city residents creates an engaged public, an accountable government and long-lasting solutions to our city's biggest challenges.
And I firmly believe local government must take the first steps by demonstrating that it is truly accountable to the people we serve. That's why we passed a tax incentive reform bill last session-creating a clear and transparent process when tax abatements are on the table. Those decisions have lasting implications for residents-particularly young people enrolled in our public schools. I want to thank Alderman Shane Cohn for putting these much-needed reforms in place. Next year, we fully intend to follow up on his work by streamlining the incentive process and ensuring that we don't attract developers at the expense of the city's most foundational needs.
This is how we inspire and encourage the next generation of emerging leaders; when people trust the process, they're more likely to participate. The city will always need new leadership, and it's our responsibility-those currently in office-to lift up young people and their experiences. That is why I named Alderwoman Sonnier-the youngest member of our Board-to chair the committee charged with overseeing the Rams Settlement process. Her leadership has and will continue to ensure that all perspectives are heard, that all stakeholders are treated with respect, and that those affected by the decisions we make today have a voice throughout this process.
For those same reasons, the outgoing Board of Aldermen established our city's first Charter Commission. As it stands, St. Louis is operating off a one hundred year-old document. We need to modernize city government and reduce red tape so we can transform how our local government operates. Centering residents in that process builds a stronger working relationship between the public and their local government and ensures that our city charter meets the needs of the people it is designed to serve.
The work I've just described is pivotal for our city's success. A policy agenda can transform communities when it takes on systemic poverty by focusing on the fundamentals. Moving families and individuals toward stability creates more economic activity which, in turn, encourages growth.
These decisions-the ones we make today and in the years ahead-will set the stage for our future. My hope is that we look back at this time as a turning point in our city's history.
As I said before, poverty has always been a policy choice. In 1877, St. Louisans understood that it wasn't the only choice. The General Strike taught us that change is not only possible, it's essential for progress. It also showed us the power of organizing-that when we work together with a common purpose, we can transform our communities in ways we could never do alone.
Once again, I want to thank members of the board-our committee chairs in particular-for their hard work. Your steadfast dedication to the residents of our city brought us to this point. Without you, progress on this ambitious agenda would not have been possible.
I also want to thank STL TV for its part in making tonight possible. Andre Holman and his staff remind us that a group of thoughtful, dedicated people can change how the rest of us see the world.
To my fellow residents, know that the Board of Aldermen, Mayor Jones, Comptroller Green, and I stand ready to work together and directly with you to make our city stronger. My first year in this office has been an honor, and I look forward to serving you for another three years. We have more work ahead of us, and I feel confident we can make our city work for everyone who chooses to call St. Louis home.
Thank you and have a great night.