St. Louis will begin the process of electing a new mayor on Tuesday, when city voters choose two candidates to face off in the April 6 general election.
For the first time, the primary will be non-partisan, after a new “approval voting” system was enacted that placed all candidates on the same ballot and allowed residents to cast a vote for as many as they want. The two with the most votes move on.
Whoever emerges victorious in April will inherit a city suffering record-breaking gun violence, a housing crisis and a still spreading COVID-19 virus.
On top of that, the city faces a nearly $100 million hole in its budget thanks to the pandemic.
But the next mayor could also walk into office with a $400 million budget boost from the federal government, if Congress approves President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package.
It would mean the city could end its current hiring freeze, said St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green, as well as a halt on neighborhood improvements, such as repairing bridges and roads.
“It will certainly come at a good time when there’s new leadership, and we can have more than just what they call campaign talk,” said Green, who has been the city’s chief fiscal officer since 1995. “You could get in there and have some reassurance that you have the dollars to walk the walk.”
Democrats in the race are Tishaura Jones, Lewis Reed, and Cara Spencer. Andrew Jones is the lone non-partisan candidate, though he ran as a Republican in the 2017 mayoral race.
Tishaura Jones and Reed were among the five main candidates in the 2017 Democratic mayoral primary, where Lyda Krewson narrowly defeated Tishaura Jones by 888 votes.
Krewson announced she would not run for re-election two weeks after voters approved the nonpartisan election measure, Prop D, by 68 percent of the vote.
Tishaura Jones was widely perceived to have lost in part because there were four major Black candidates that split the vote. And she earned almost double the votes of the next closest Black candidate, which was Reed.
“I think if we would have had this in 2017, we would have had a different outcome,” said Tishaura Jones, who currently serves as the city’s treasurer.
One of the most immediate and biggest challenges the next mayor will face is keeping residents in their homes.
“I’m worried about an impending foreclosure crisis,” said Spencer, currently an alderwoman representing south St. Louis. “The city does have a role in distributing those (relief) funds.”
The city ran out of the $7 million in rental and mortgage assistance funds from the CARES Act in early December. More than 9,000 people submitted applications.
“The backlog is just immense,” said Reed, who is currently president of the city’s Board of Aldermen. “There’s thousands of people still waiting because there is such a need, and even more people come in each and every day.”
In late January, the city received $9 million for rental assistance from the federal relief package Congress passed in December, and the application is expected to open any day now.
Since August, the city’s circuit court has ordered a moratorium on evictions. While this has kept people in their homes, it didn’t stop roughly 3,000 eviction proceedings from occurring in 2020.
Now hundreds of eviction judgements are sitting in the sheriff’s office, waiting to be executed the moment the order lifts.
The circuit court has not tracked the total number of judgements, and a spokesman from the sheriff’s office said they could not access the number due to a winter-related pipe break in the office building. However, the number likely tracks closely to St. Louis County, where 500 families are scheduled to be evicted when the county’s court order lifts.
The city’s current moratorium expires on March 2, but the judge will likely extend it through April 1, sources with knowledge of the situation told The Independent.
Because of the gravity of the situation, the nonprofit Homes For All held a mayoral forum last week solely dedicated to how candidates will handle the eviction and mortgage foreclosure crisis.
Several candidates mentioned they would ensure that the Affordable Housing Trust Fund was fully funded. This fund supports agencies that work to prevent families from losing their homes, serve the homeless, as well as aim to build affordable housing developments.
Advocates have long demanded that the fund receive a minimal allocation of $10 million every year, instead of the current $5 million.
Green said she would strongly support this allocation — and her vote counts.
Green sits on the three-member Board of Estimate and Apportionment that has the power to allocate more money to the fund. The other two votes come from the mayor and the president of the Board of Aldermen.
Green said she would also support putting money towards home repairs and forgivable home-loan programs. This could also help to entice more people to move into the city — where the population has steadily declined the past decade, she said.
In fact, recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates show a trend of Black residents moving out of the city.
It’s unclear whether the new federal relief funds will come in before or after the April election.
However, Reed said he’ll ensure aldermen approve the funds quickly so the money can get out to residents.
Although $400 million sounds like a lot of money, especially when this year’s general revenue fund was budgeted for $481.6 million, that money is going to go fast, Tishaura Jones said.
The next mayor will need to continue to urge their federal delegation and lobbyists to make sure renters and property owners are protected.
“What is the federal government going to do to forgive mortgages for this entire period?” she asked. “That would make a lot of people whole. There’s so many missteps that happened during this pandemic, and the federal government is only doing peanuts to make everybody whole.”