St. Louis Advocates Organize Against Illegal Lock-Outs

A coalition of fair housing, legal services and other social justice advocates in St. Louis, MO are organizing against “lock-out” or “self-help” evictions from rental housing properties, which are illegal without a court order under Missouri state law. The coalition is led by the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council (EHOC) and Empower Missouri, an NLIHC state partner.

Lock-out evictions may consist of a landlord changing or removing locks on the door, boarding up doors or windows, removing a tenant’s possessions, terminating utility services, or otherwise making a tenant’s home uninhabitable to force a tenant to vacate the premises. These extrajudicial eviction processes often are carried out without the court order required by law and in some cases have occurred with the threat of or actual violence by landlords. According to Kalila Jackson of EHOC, households with the lowest incomes, women of color, families with young children, and people with disabilities are the most vulnerable to these forms of illegal evictions and factor disproportionately among those who seek legal assistance from EHOC in lock-out cases.

Ms. Jackson states there has been an increase in lock-out cases reported to EHOC recently, but also notes the difficulty in gathering accurate numbers: Because lock-out evictions take place outside of the legal process, there is no comprehensive mechanism for tracking where, when, and how frequently they occur. Many cases are not reported.

David Lander, a professor of practice at the Saint Louis University School of Law and a community legal advocate, notes that when a person experiences a lock-out eviction – often someone already vulnerable in their housing situation as well as in other areas of life – that person may find it easier to move forward and seek housing elsewhere rather than report their illegal displacement and seek legal remedies. “The people impacted are often the most vulnerable in our communities. Often when the tenants return to their homes, their possessions are locked in or left on the street and the locks on their doors have been changed. The tenants often call the police, but receive the response that this is a civil matter and outside the hands of the police,” says Mr. Lander.

The coalition has come together to combat and prevent further lock-outs by advocating for a citywide ordinance that clearly defines an illegal eviction, a tenant’s rights during an illegal eviction, and the penalties for violation of the law against lock-outs. In many other municipalities across the country, lock-outs are illegal by state law and clarified by municipal ordinance. Advocates in St. Louis have pointed to these cities and counties as examples. Based on early conversations with St. Louis City Alderpersons, the coalition is hopeful an ordinance may be enacted as early as December. Advocates are actively seeking additional coalition partners to join in their effort to pass a citywide ordinance. Once an ordinance is enacted, the coalition plans to address the operational procedures of police departments during evictions, first in St. Louis City and then in other municipalities across the metropolitan area.

Empower Missouri notes that illegal evictions are not unique to the St. Louis metropolitan but occur across the state, and soon will begin connecting advocates in St. Louis with those in Kansas City, MO. They envision success in St. Louis leading to similar measures in Kansas City and other cities across the state, and see their work combatting illegal evictions as one piece of broader improvements in tenants’ rights laws needed in Missouri.

“The Affordable Housing and Homelessness Task Force of Empower Missouri is committed to advocating for accessible and affordable housing for vulnerable populations in Missouri. Illegal lockouts only act to intensify the instability that many within these populations experience on a daily basis. We are grateful for the work of EHOC and other advocates in ensuring access to justice and restoring dignity to these individuals and families,” says Nicole McKoy, co-chair of Empower Missouri’s Affordable Housing and Homelessness Task Force.

For more information, contact Nicole McKoy at nicole_mckoy@usc.salvationarmy.org.