ST. LOUIS – St. Louis is facing a population crisis, becoming one of the fastest-shrinking cities in America. There’s growing agreement among city officials that short-term rentals are making it worse.

They say there are now more than 4,000 unregulated short-term rental units in the city.

But the fight to reach a solution is getting heated. Issues like chaotic fighting, reckless driving, gunfire, and more tied to parties at short-term rentals in downtown condos and apartments came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have persisted and spread.

With the lack of regulation, it isn’t just a downtown problem anymore. Right now, anyone can buy a house anywhere in the city and start renting it short-term.

Business interests drawn by the lack of regulation are buying up properties for short-term rentals, according to city officials, sparking a shortage in affordable housing and adding to the population drain.

“Out of 798 municipalities in the United States with 50,000 people or more, we are 797 (in terms of population loss),” Alderwoman Cara Spencer said. “That means there’s only one city in the United States that’s losing population faster than St. Louis.”

Spencer chairs the Board of Aldermen’s Transportation and Commerce Committee, which considered two bills that would regulate short-term rentals for the first time.

Among other things, the new ordinances would require permits issued to people—not corporations—who offer short-term rentals; ban single-night rentals; require those with permits to be responsive to renters and emergency responders at all times; and tax the units at much higher commercial rates as opposed to residential rates.

Les Sterman, a downtown resident and advocate and one of the leaders of the group Citizens for a Greater Downtown St. Louis, calls it a start but not much of one.

“There’s too many loopholes. There’s too many ways to evade the ordinance if you’re determined to do that,” he said.

Spencer stalled the approval of the proposed ordinances, saying they needed more teeth.

“I just want to make sure we’ve got the toughest bill that we can that really protects our communities. We are losing populations like you wouldn’t believe,” Spencer said.

A group of residents called Neighborhoods for Neighbors is proposing tougher restrictions in its own draft ordinance.

Its proposal includes a limit on the number of short-term rentals to 12.5% of the units in buildings of nine units or more; banning short-term rentals of single and multifamily homes, unless the permit holder actually lives there; a 10 p.m. curfew for gatherings at short-term rentals; as well as specific penalties and guidelines for revoking permits for issues like fighting and gunfire.

“Why are we swimming upstream?” said Steve Pona of Neighborhoods for Neighbors. “Why are we going in the opposite direction of every other market, including Kansas City, New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Denver? Every other major market is getting control of their real estate and tourism industries, and St. Louis wants to go in the other direction. Within 500 feet of my house, there are six large-capacity, short-term rentals, including the one next door.”

“My belief is that we need to get regulations onto the books as soon as possible, and then we can tinker with those regulations as we move forward,” said Alderman Bret Narayan, who is sponsoring the proposed ordinances.

A spokesman for Mayor Tishaura Jones emailed a statement, saying in part, “There’s widespread agreement that the city must regulate short-term rentals in St. Louis after years of inaction to make our neighborhoods safer and protect affordable housing. Unlike many surrounding municipalities, St. Louis does not have any regulations on the books; this legislation moves the ball forward. It was made even stronger after numerous public feedback sessions this summer…”

The committee is expected to vote on a final proposal at its meeting on Oct. 3.