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SC’s only major attempt to fix North Charleston’s eviction crisis isn’t enough

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Volunteer attorneys meet tenants facing eviction in the hallway outside the North Area 1 courtroom. The housing court program was sanctioned by the state Supreme Court last year and has become a model for how other parts of South Carolina could improve renters’ access to justice. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

NORTH CHARLESTON — Every Wednesday morning, lawyers in America’s eviction capital huddle in a linoleum hallway around renters on the verge of losing their homes, digging for a way to make it stop.

In the back of a county office building, they probe landlords’ rent ledgers for discrepancies, ask about the conditions of their properties and check the steps of the eviction process, to make sure the rules are followed to a T. Part-time volunteers and professional legal aid attorneys share the same goal: to reduce North Charleston’s worst-in-the-nation eviction rate one case at a time.

Letting them try is perhaps the most significant action South Carolina’s government has taken to address the region’s eviction crisis since researchers exposed North Charleston’s sky-high rate in 2018. The housing court program was sanctioned by the state Supreme Court last year, and it has become a model for how other parts of South Carolina could improve renters’ access to justice.

But there is only so much a lawyer can deliver.

In its best moments, South Carolina’s first housing court has exposed shoddy accounting, unwound illegal fees and called out landlords who neglect to meet tenants’ most basic needs, like heat in the winter. In those moments, its attorneys have halted evictions and won concessions for their clients.

But on most days, this court, which started hearing cases in October 2019, shows that the root of the Charleston area’s eviction crisis is simple: money. And it highlights that legal representation alone cannot overcome rent that’s too high or a past-due balance snowballing out of control. The overwhelming majority of cases that landed in the court in its first year had to do with rent, a Post and Courier analysis of court records found.

So, more often than not, the lawyers who work at the North Area 1 housing court become mediators, brokering deals between their clients and the landlords who own trailer parks and aging brick apartment buildings and modest single-story homes in this part of North Charleston's southern end. They take cases from a working-class section of the city, running from the Ashley River to the gentrifying edge of Park Circle.

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Judge Amy Mikell presides over the North Area 1 housing court in North Charleston in November. The program successfully prevented formal evictions in most cases in its first year, but most families still ultimately had to leave their homes. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

North Charleston captures the competing forces that define the Lowcountry's economy: It has positioned itself as the center of the region's fast-growing industry, bisected by rail lines and highways and bracketed by port terminals and a busy airfield where workers build airplanes worth upward of $300 million. It holds shopping malls and factories and call centers, and it has a rate of poverty significantly higher than the rest of Charleston County, which has a housing affordability problem all its own.

To be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment without overstretching their budget, the typical Charleston County renter would need to make another $6 an hour, state researchers concluded last year. Consider, then, that North Charleston is a city where more people rent than own, and a city where more people are evicted than anywhere else in the country. In 2016, there was an eviction for every six renters, according to a Princeton University study.

In the housing court project's early days, lawyers negotiated Hail Mary deals in their effort to lower those numbers. The settlements they reached gave tenants a few more weeks to come up with the money they owed, which was often thousands of dollars.

Most were unable to pay, and they were ultimately evicted. Lately, lawyers have been working out deals to give tenants a few weeks to move out, without a formal eviction order.

The program’s organizers boast that some 61 percent of the cases they handled in the first year avoided a formal eviction, preserving their clients’ rental histories and making it easier to find a new place to live. Their results have made the housing court a focal point for activists seeking to address evictions statewide.

Even so, the newspaper’s analysis found that representation alone cannot keep renters in their homes. In a majority of cases, tenants had to move out, with or without an eviction order.

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Tony Sellers (left) speaks with his attorney, Brian Bevon, a volunteer for the housing court. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

A second chance

Iona Rivers’ circumstances were common to many South Carolinians’: An electrician by trade, her job can’t be done remotely, so when in-person work ground to a halt this spring, her income fell off.

As a contractor, she didn’t have the stability of a full-time employer, and in the early months of the pandemic, jobs were harder to come by. Around the state, the construction industry cut thousands of workers, before rebounding over the summer.

In the meantime, Rivers fell behind on the rent for her house in North Charleston’s Ferndale neighborhood, which sits behind a commercial strip of Rivers Avenue. Her landlord, an investment company called Sam Dom, filed a case against her in June, after the state's eviction moratorium ended. At the time, according to court records, she owed nearly $3,000. Her legal options were narrow.

But she was still getting some work and because she'd served in the military, she was able to get help through the Department of Veterans Affairs. As they often do, her housing court attorneys acted as mediators, working out a deal in which Rivers would pay most of the back rent on the spot and get a week to come up with the rest. Rivers says the extra time kept her from losing her home.

In the first year of the North Area 1 housing court, Rivers’ outcome was unusual. One of her neighbors, for instance, had an eviction hearing right after hers one morning in July. Like Rivers, he agreed to apply for rental assistance to cover a balance of nearly $2,000; unlike her, court records show he was evicted once his extra time ran out.

The result of his case was more typical. In about 40 percent of the cases that result in a settlement, the tenant still ends up with a formal eviction, the program's organizers say. That's because there’s rarely enough rental assistance available to close the gap, and extra time doesn’t fix the financial problems that brought them to court in the first place.

It’s an acknowledgement that the root of the high eviction rates in North Charleston is not what happens in the courtroom; it’s the cost of housing, amplified by state laws that make evictions easy for property managers to access and restrict tenants’ recourse.

By law, it’s cheap to file for an eviction — just $40 — and many landlords therefore turn to the courts soon after rent is late.

State law doesn't specify a cap on late fees, allowing steep charges that can make one late payment the start of a financial snowball; once an eviction case is filed, landlords can charge tenants for the court fees, too.

The law doesn't allow tenants to withhold rent if their apartments have problems, and if they are behind on rent, it curtails tenants' legal rights to demand fixes. In one case this year, a couple living in a duplex off Rivers Avenue said their roof had a hole so big that squirrels could get into the house. It leaked so badly that they rented a hotel room any time it rained. Because they were behind on rent when they told their landlord about the problems, they weren’t allowed to claim it as a defense for not paying.

In most parts of the state, the courts don’t grant tenants a hearing unless they request one; so, more often than not, landlords don’t need to face a judge to put out a tenant.

In fact, one impact of the housing court program appears to be emboldening renters to ask for a day in court. Eviction notices in housing court jurisdictions now go out with a flyer telling tenants they can get free representation if they request a hearing. Court data indicates more people are doing so.

In 2018, hearings were requested for fewer than a tenth of eviction filings in the North Area 1 court. This year, hearings have been requested in a quarter of cases.

The trouble is that, by then, it may be too late to help. This court can ask for second chances, but it can’t demand them.

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Lawyers meet with clients before going into the courtroom to discuss eviction cases at the Lonnie Hamilton III Public Services Building on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, in North Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

A lack of options

When a case is about money, attorneys have limited options to help.

And in the North Area 1 housing court’s first year, 80 percent of the cases dealt with unpaid rent, according to a Post and Courier analysis of court records. The rest are mostly filed by landlords seeking to end a month-to-month rental agreement or alleging lease violations, such as damage to a unit or criminal activity.

Attorneys review each case in the back of the county office building off Leeds Avenue, in a hallway frequented by government employees stepping out for a smoke break and residents looking for an ATM. Standing around the blue-and-green cloth chairs that line the walls, tenants and their attorneys run down a checklist of possible defenses. They look for common landlord missteps such as failing to give notice or charging excessive fees.

But often, the best an attorney can do is make the exit more orderly. So they find their client's landlord among the courtroom's wooden benches and negotiate a date for them to move out without a formal eviction order. When they reach a deal, their case might last all of five minutes. Then, the attorneys head back into the hallway, waiting for the next family to arrive.

Consider the case of a 67-year-old widow who faced eviction from a newish, vinyl-sided apartment just south of Park Circle. Her rental history was clean; she’d paid on time for five years, even though the $750-a-month rent took up most of her Social Security check.

But last year, she needed surgery, which resulted in a pair of hospital stays, and monthly treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. The copays swamped her finances and she fell behind. By the time her case was heard by the housing court, she owed $3,200.

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Jeff Yungman, who manages the program and represented her that day, asked the property manager to allow her to put her next Social Security check toward rent while she applied for rental assistance.

The property manager said no, indicating the company had waited long enough. Under the law, the apartment complex didn’t owe her a second chance, and it didn’t give her one.

Like the majority of renters who appear before the housing court, she would have to move out. She now lives outside Atlanta with her sister and drives five hours to Charleston for medical appointments and visits with her family.

Of the nearly 140 clients served in the first year at North Area 1, more than 80 either agreed to move out or had an eviction order issued against them, according to court data and the program’s records.

More than a dozen others were removed in subsequent eviction cases. And a handful more have temporarily staved off removal by invoking an emergency federal order that restricts evictions during the pandemic. Those protections will expire next week unless Congress’s stimulus bill is signed into law; even then, they’ll only last until February.

Housing advocates say a negotiated move-out is still a better outcome for renters who would have otherwise been evicted. Instead of moving on the court’s schedule and risking their things being dumped on the curb, families get more time to find a new place to live, pack up and leave. And because landlords often check prospective tenants for past evictions, they can avoid a record that would foreclose future housing options.

An eviction order can trigger an avalanche of problems, said Matthew Billingsley, an attorney who handles eviction cases for S.C. Legal Services, a pro bono legal aid organization. It can force children to change schools abruptly and leave a family’s belongings vulnerable to damage and theft, deepening the financial spiral. Having an orderly exit, therefore, is a useful, if not ideal, outcome.

The court regularly hears tenants testify that they can no longer afford the rent, that they have no chance of catching up. Some come to court just to hand over their keys. One woman told the court she’d already rented a U-Haul truck.

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Judge Amy Mikell speaks to a defendant in an eviction case inside the North Area 1 courtroom off Leeds Avenue. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

The lack of assistance

The depth of the Lowcountry’s affordable housing problem emerges in the eviction filings that filter into the housing court.

Renters accused of not paying rent owed $1,800 in the typical case when their landlords filed for evictions, and the median rent was $800, according to the newspaper’s analysis of court documents. In many instances, another month had come due by the time their case was heard, making it even harder to avoid an eviction.

That makes for an often-insurmountable hole, even in a year when the government set up special programs to help. The state's pandemic rental assistance program capped payments at $1,500 per household. Congress approved payments totaling $1,800 a person, meant to help families through a crisis that has lasted nine months.

Even before the pandemic, the housing court's organizers anticipated a need for rental assistance, so they set up a fund to help clients. It has been far outmatched by the need.

The fund, which relies on grant money, had just $50,000 to divvy up in its first year, and the program's clients in North Area 1 alone were alleged to owe more than $225,000. A year in, the program also has started to help clients in two other courts in North Charleston and one in West Ashley, increasing the demand.

And the economic turmoil this year drained other rental assistance funds, fraying a crucial safety net; Congress only this month approved a new stimulus package to replenish them. It also amplified the need for help. Past-due balances that would have been extraordinarily high before the pandemic have become routine. Since the spring, families have been accused of owing as much as $7,000. 

“Fifty thousand is certainly not enough to cover four housing courts with the amount people are now owing. We could double that easy and still probably be running short,” said Yungman, who helps organize the program as director of legal services at One80 Place, a homeless shelter.

Because of its financial constraints, the program's assistance fund mostly helps renters who came to the verge of eviction because of a one-time setback, like medical bills or a lost job. That is, it primarily helps people who have housing they can afford.

Grants generally go to people who “with a little financial help can, in essence, right the ship,” said Otha Meadows, CEO of the Charleston Trident Urban League, which administers the rental assistance fund. Because the fund isn’t big enough to subsidize a family’s rent long-term, it goes to families who have a shot of staying above water on their own, even if barely. (A secondary consequence of the high cost of housing is that even if a family can afford their rent, they may not have the budget to save for emergencies.)

In the first year of the housing court program, the Urban League made grants to 42 families, offering them, on average, $1,200 each. Meadows says the typical request through the program is closer to twice that.

“In a nutshell, a lot of folk are living in places they really can’t afford, but really have no option,” Meadows said. “If we were to triple the housing court pilot project, it still wouldn’t come up to address the number of evictions that are being handed out.”

A model for the state

That’s because the roots of South Carolina’s eviction problem run far too deep for one program to address it in full.

The S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority last year concluded that South Carolina had the nation’s highest eviction rate — “by far.” It found that in all but five rural counties, the typical renter would have to overextend their budget to pay for a basic two-bedroom apartment, and subsidized housing was only available to one in five people who needed it.

About a third of South Carolina families have to forego basic needs to afford a place to live, the agency said. And it estimated that the state was bearing a high cost from what’s known as shelter poverty: $8.4 billion.

That’s about the same as all the money the state of South Carolina collected in sales and income taxes last year. And it rivals the roughly $9 billion a pair of power companies torched on a failed nuclear project a few years ago, an issue the state Legislature considered so significant that lawmakers all but dedicated a year of work to addressing it.

Yet lawmakers have not taken significant action to address the state’s high eviction rate in the 2½ years since researchers identified North Charleston and Columbia as two of the nation’s eviction capitals. And voters in Charleston County last month narrowly rejected a plan to create more affordable housing.

That leaves the creation of the housing court — which was proposed by housing advocates and sanctioned by the state’s court administration — as the most direct action the state has taken in response to the researchers’ findings.

And while even its supporters acknowledge that the housing court won’t solve evictions, the idea has legs. Organizers have fielded calls from groups in Columbia and Florence that have toyed with creating their own programs. And state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, has filed legislation to take the program statewide, saying that the first housing court’s success in reducing formal evictions is progress worth replicating.

For the program to work statewide, he acknowledges the state would need to pay attorneys to represent renters. It’s not clear what that would cost, but Pendarvis argues the investment would be justified by reducing the need for social services later.

“If there’s ever a time, the time is now, especially in this pandemic. We’re seeing how evictions affect South Carolinians across the board,” said Pendarvis, the Legislature’s most vocal advocate for addressing evictions. “The failure … to address it is going to cost the state significantly in the long run.”

In its first year, the Charleston County housing court program’s focus has been withstanding the pandemic and reaching more of the county. 

But next year, the program’s organizers want to take a more holistic approach, by having someone follow up with clients to make sure they’re able to keep their agreements and by offering financial counseling to help them avoid future problems, Yungman said.

Organizers would also like to expand the program to the magistrate court on the Charleston peninsula, but would need more volunteer attorneys to make it work. The existing program leans on a small handful of regular volunteers plus full-time pro bono attorneys to pick up shifts on top of their regular caseload. (The group applied for grant money this fall to start paying some volunteers, but hasn’t secured funding.)

In the meantime, the program will have to contend with the end of pandemic protections for renters and past-due balances that have swelled this year. The amount of back rent has grown, in part, because a patchwork of state and federal restrictions has prevented property owners from filing for evictions.

When the last one ends next year, housing advocates anticipate a deluge of eviction cases to follow, a staggering reminder of the region's affordability problem. And in the courtroom hallways, the lawyers here will be asked to work something out.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

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