McMaster house fire

Firefighters check fire damage to the roof of a home owned by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Tuesday. Jessica Holdman/Staff

COLUMBIA — Fleeing flames, a dozen residents and overnight visitors poured out of two University Hill homes owned by Gov. Henry McMaster and gathered onto Greene Street early Tuesday morning.

Under Columbia city ordinance, no more than three unrelated adults can live in a single dwelling. Authorities have said seven people fled one of McMaster's homes near the University of South Carolina campus and five from a neighboring house. 

McMaster's rental company hasn't been penalized, in part because the homes are split into two separate units, city officials said, but the fire highlighted how local occupancy laws are often tricky to enforce.

"It's so easy to skirt the law on the number of occupants," said April Lucas, a 32-year resident of the University Hill neighborhood where the fires took place. "The landlords and the tenants tend to go 'Wink, wink' and ignore the law."

When an occupation violation is found, such as not removing a garbage can, a point is recorded against the residence. If a residence racks up 15 points for zoning department violations, a rental permit can be revoked, Columbia police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said.

Columbia City Councilman Sam Davis said that before occupancy limits were enacted, complaints were coming in from residents across the city.

"Most of the houses here were built around 1900," Lucas said. "That means we have shared driveways and very few garages. So parking is a big issue for us."

Lucas said more homes in her neighborhood are being turned into rentals rather than housing families. A home that once had one or two cars outside now has three or more, she said, and each resident has overnight visitors.

"Now here comes another two to three cars, so you're cramming six vehicles into two parking spaces," she said.

The governor's office said Thursday that McMaster had not been contacted by authorities about any potential violations at the Greene Street homes. McMaster and his wife Peggy own 20 homes around the city that they rent mainly to college students. 

The McMaster homes that caught fire are split into two, allowing six people to live in each residence, Columbia Zoning Administrator Rachel Bailey said. The homes have no recent violations, she said.

Living close to campus, Lucas knows to expect students in her neighborhood and mostly enjoys having them.

"It's a nice vibe until it turns into something more akin to 'Animal House,' " she said. "I love living here. That's one reason I pay attention and enforce the rules.

"It's worth fighting for, and as a neighborhood, we're fighting."

Davis said violations are usually brought to staff attention by neighbors' complaints. He said that sometimes they'll find an occupancy violation during inspections for other potential violations.

Davis said one action he thinks has helped was putting enforcement under Columbia police, giving the issue "more manpower, more eyes and more skills."

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"One of the things I think we could do is hold landlords more accountable for what goes on on their property," said Davis, who was on the council several years ago when it passed an ordinance cracking down on absentee landlords.

In 2011, McMaster filed suit to overturn Columbia's ordinance, but the state Supreme Court upheld the law.

In Clemson, town officials require residential landlords to be licensed and town staff conducts annual inspections to ensure compliance, Clemson Zoning and Codes Administrator Jacob Peabody said. Anyone caught violating occupation ordinances can lose their license for a year.

"That really takes care of it," he said.

Peabody said in recent years the city receives, on average, one neighborhood complaint a year for a landlord's license revocation.

Cities have a tough time getting concrete proof of a violation and it often takes an admission from a tenant, said Dan Riccio, Charleston's director of livability and tourism. Any enforcement actions often are taken based on neighbor complaints.

"Is it enforceable? Yes. Is it a challenge to enforce? Yes," Riccio said.

Columbia police have charged Frank John Wilberding, 21, in the McMaster property fire. That includes  three counts of arson and a drug possession charge, plus 10 count of assault and battery covering the occupants of the homes who escaped the fire unharmed.