As parts of South Carolina see a booming housing market, an affordable housing crisis and record-breaking eviction rates, a state lawmaker hopes to strengthen tenants' rights so they're less likely to end up on the street.
Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, plans to propose revolutionary changes to the S.C. Residential Landlord and Tenant Act ahead of the start of the 2019 legislative session.
This effort comes amid allegations that Gov. Henry McMaster is himself part of the problem. In October, The Post and Courier reported that tenants found mold and roaches in McMaster's Columbia rental properties.
Pendarvis said he expects the changes to win bipartisan support as they simply do more to streamline the judicial process, a change that could help both tenants and reputable landlords.
"The reasons we’re having these conversations is because landlords have been taking advantage of tenants," Pendarvis said.
Changes proposed include:
- A landlord-tenant court in which selected magistrate judges would handle eviction cases. Under current practice, these judges juggle eviction filings with traffic violations, misdemeanor crimes and other civil offenses.
- A "repair and deduct" policy in which tenants would have the ability to apply repair-related expenses as credit toward their rent if a landlord refuses to fix the problem. Magistrates have said it is common for tenants to challenge evictions on the grounds that they were forced to pay for their own repairs.
No. 1 in the nation
Pendarvis' hometown of North Charleston made national news this year when it was ranked as the country's No. 1 eviction market in Princeton University's Eviction Lab report covering data from 2016.
The lab reviewed 83 million court-ordered evictions over a decade and found North Charleston's eviction rate was 16.5 percent, meaning more than 16 of every 100 tenants were forced out that year.
Columbia, which ranked No. 8 nationally, saw courts ordered evictions at a rate of 8.22 percent. South Carolina's state rate of 8.87 percent was four times higher than the national average of 2.34 percent.
After the findings were reported, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, organized a town hall meeting in North Charleston.
Hundreds of anxious renters listened to a panel of attorneys and nonprofit leaders who generally agreed that stagnant wages, skyrocketing utility bills and landlord-supportive laws — such as South Carolina's — were among the factors fueling the high eviction rates.
Pendarvis, who was one of the panelists, blamed absentee landlords and a backlog of at least 3,600 cases in local magistrate courts for the problem.
They're not the only factor. South Carolina's teachers are poorer today than they were in 2008. Local municipalities are eyeing wage increases for staffers, but a single parent earning North Charleston's $13.25 hourly wage could still struggle to make ends meet. The average hourly wage for a food worker in the Charleston region in 2017 was $10.79, according to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.
Meanwhile, housing prices are skyrocketing. Charleston Farms, one of the most affordable places in the tri-county area, saw median home prices jump by about 5 percent in the past year, according to the latest sales data from the Charleston Area Trident Association of Realtors. In the past three years, rents in the neighborhood increased from about $600 per month to about $900 per month for a two-bedroom.
Victoria Cowart sits on the board for the National Apartment Association and co-founded the Charleston Apartment Association. She also works for Darby Properties, a group that manages two apartment complexes in North Charleston.
The reason North Charleston happens to have such a high rate has more to do with the sheer number of units and the fact that residents are lower-income.
She has studied data from market analytics group CoStar, which shows 13,200 of the tri-county area's 49,000 apartment units are in North Charleston. Only 1,790 are in downtown Charleston. The average monthly rent in North Charleston is $994 — nearly half of the $1,900 average found in downtown Charleston.
"North Charleston is a great place, but when you’re looking at the most modest rent and your largest stock of units, that is the correlation," Cowart said. "Not the landlords."
'Not about handouts'
Darby Properties rents to about 300 tenants in two different North Charleston apartment complexes. Each month, the company files roughly 20 to 30 evictions based on nonpayment of rent, but only 15 tenants are actually evicted each year, Cowart said.
"The overwhelming number of those filings do not come to fruition," she said. "Those are essentially legal late letters."
Pendarvis said his proposed changes are business-friendly. More than anything else, his edits to the 1986 law will do more to clarify the rules for tenants and give them a bit more security.
He pointed out that his ideas are similar to laws that exist in other conservative states. Texas, for example, allows tenants to deduct repair-related payments from their monthly rent. But people can't stop paying their rent "carte blanche," he said.
Under his proposed law, tenants would have to submit a request in writing and give their landlord the legally-binding 14 days to complete a repair.
After that, an official agency, such as the Department of Health and Environmental Control, would have to certify via letter that the repair is affecting the health, safety and well-being of the tenant.
"It’s not about handouts," he said. "If our laws and policies inhibit people to move forward in any meaningful way, what does that say about us?"
Under current state law, tenants are allowed to challenge their evictions by scheduling a hearing before a judge. They must do this at least 10 days after receiving their eviction notice.
Despite the backlog of cases, Cowart said she has found the magistrate judges to be effective and consistent.
"I would rather the customer have their opportunity and have their day in court," she said.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Taneshia Ferguson stepped into Judge Richardine Singleton-Brown's North Area 2 magistrate court to fight an Oct. 30 eviction filing. She owed her landlord, South Carolina Property Management Experts, a past due balance of $1,900.
Her plight was two-fold. First, the North Charleston Housing Authority had not yet paid its portion of the rent. Secondly, Ferguson said she was unable to pay October's rent because she had been laid off by the Hardee's near Tanger Outlets, where she said she worked for two years. She recently got a new job at Walmart.
Since being rehired, Ferguson said she's given the company all the money she can.
"I came up with $500 on Saturday," she said.
Carly Jent, an employee of SCPMX, affirmed Ferguson's story. She told Judge Singleton-Brown that the company was willing to hold off on the eviction.
"I want her to stay. I don't want her to leave," Jent told the judge. "But we have to get this balance figured out."
Of course, not all landlords and tenants have amicable relationships.
On Nov. 21, Samuel King Jr. waited for one of his tenants inside the North Area 2 courtroom. She hadn't paid rent in two months, the landlord said. King and Judge Singleton-Brown waited for her to arrive for the hearing she scheduled, but she didn't show up.
King walked out in frustration.
"She's the one who asked for this," he said. "Everyone comes here and they always have an excuse for not paying rent. I think they ought to protect the landlord, also."
The next day, a similar scenario unfolded before Magistrate Judge Amy Mikell in North Area 1's court. Shortly before 2:30 p.m., Mikell stepped into the courtroom and awaited the next eviction case on her docket. By 2:32 p.m., only a representative from the property owner had shown up.
Ten minutes later, with no tenant around, Mikell's gavel hit her desk.
"Writ of ejectment" processed.
This story has been edited to remove incorrect information about the number of eviction-related filings in Charleston County Magistrate court during the last five years.