By the Editorial Board
When Airbnb and other short-term online rental companies arrived on the St. Louis scene, the commonly advertised goal was to make less-used apartments and homes available to people looking for alternatives. competitive with hotels. No one envisioned them as places to ransack as tenants threw wild parties. One downtown building in particular has gained a reputation for allowing overnight rentals that turn madly violent, resulting in gunfire and death. These rentals have become a major contributing factor to downtown’s reputation as crime-riddled and too dangerous to visit after dark.
This needs to change, and if that means imposing severe legal and financial penalties on building and condominium unit owners, so be it. But one thing city officials must not allow is for this party venue scenario to continue unregulated. St. Louis cannot afford the damage this situation is inflicting on the city’s reputation.
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As the Post-Dispatch’s Jacob Barker reported on Friday, one of the main culprits is the Ely Walker Lofts on Washington Avenue. Owners of the most problematic units are ultimately called to account by the city and residents for failing to properly follow nuisance laws and the building’s own bylaws regarding rowdy parties.
A March 12 night party at the building resulted in gunfire that killed 16-year-old Terrion Smith. Other noisy parties made life hell for the residents. A year ago, a notorious party spilled onto the streets, where revelers jumped onto the roof of a police car and defiantly twerked.
Videos of the incident went viral, reinforcing St. Louis’ image of lawlessness, including nighttime street racing, biker gang rampages, shootings and chronic violence that forced a bar/restaurant, Reign, to be closed permanently. New Year’s Eve gunfire apparently from a balcony near the Ely Walker building led to gunshots at the windows of the AT&T building several blocks away. Short-term rentals, again, were the culprit, and the same rental source keeps popping up behind them.
Ira Berkowitz, a lawyer representing companies owned by brothers Victor Alston and Sid Chakraverty, denies that his clients are responsible for short-term rentals where out-of-control parties are hosted. Berkowitz’s flimsy denials don’t appear to match recordings and advertisements for units and a rental company his customers control, Barker’s report says.
Complaints from the city and residents about the mismanagement of the brothers’ properties do not appear to result in a commitment to fix what is wrong. On the contrary, Berkowitz points the finger elsewhere: it is the “proliferation of these weapons”, he says.
There isn’t a single ingredient causing chaos downtown. Rather, it is a combination of dangerous factors that must be tackled one at a time. In this case, redefining the tax status of short-term rental accommodation as commercial properties, rather than residential, could help because landlords’ tax bills would double.
Bad publicity and punching owners in the wallet are two great ways to get their attention, stop dishonest denials, and take corrective action quickly.