COLUMBIA — With a statewide moratorium on evictions lifted Friday, some are insisting that safeguards installed by local and federal authorities will help South Carolina avoid an immediate surge in people being kicked out of their homes.
For one, some local courthouses remain shuttered and most have scaled back their operations. Court orders also prohibit large gatherings for in-person hearings, a measure that’s expected to shrink eviction dockets.
And though landlords may now initiate the process of eviction, tenants will still be granted time to file responses or request an appearance before a magistrate. Charleston County will begin holding limited eviction hearings no earlier than Wednesday.
More critically, some South Carolina tenants remain eligible for special protection from eviction under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Under the measure, a stay on evictions at federally backed properties, for failure to pay rent, extends to Aug. 24. However, housing lawyers have expressed concern that some tenants may have no way of knowing if the protections apply to the property they rent.
That’s because no one has a complete list of South Carolina properties that are covered. The CARES act clearly applies to the state’s roughly 100,000 units of public housing. But it also includes other properties that are secured through federally backed mortgages or have received other federal subsidies.
On its website Thursday, The Post and Courier published a searchable database of more than 2,700 properties across South Carolina that likely qualify.
The database, compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, includes multi-family properties that have received funding, tax credits or mortgage backing from the federal government.
The data is not comprehensive, and does not include single-family properties or those with five units or less. The tally of South Carolina properties that are covered under federal protections is likely thousands greater.
But for tenants facing eviction who lack legal assistance, the database is one of the few tools available to help obtain information that might be critical.
Donald Beatty, Chief Justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, has also moved to address the issue, requiring any landlord filing a new eviction to certify that their property does not fall under the federal protections.
But housing lawyers stressed that the approach is hardly fail-safe. The information submitted, through a form drafted by the judicial department, will be reviewed by county magistrates — most of whom are not lawyers.
And because some mortgages involve complicated legal arrangements, lawyers contend that verifying whether a property may be covered could prove challenging even for landlords.
“I’m a little concerned the form requires the landlord to make a certification they may not fully understand,” said Nicole Paluzzi, an attorney with Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services. “They may be well informed. But I’m concerned that the casual landlord won’t understand what is a covered dwelling and what is not a covered dwelling.”
It’s too early to say if that will become a widespread issue, or how many landlords will attempt to move quickly to kick out tenants who can’t afford rent.
Landlords stress that maintaining rent collection is critical for paying their own bills. Donald Wood, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Columbia, said most of his members have moved to set up special payment arrangements with their tenants.
The same is true in the Charleston area, said Donna Bolewitz, president of the Charleston Apartment Association
“Many landlords are going to great lengths to work with residents, regularly allowing payment plans and actively trying to avoid eviction filings,” she said.
Bolewitz expects Charleston’s tally of evictions to be “below average” through the summer. An order from Beatty also requires a 30-minute break between each eviction hearing, to keep courtrooms clear of crowds and allow for any necessary cleaning.
In Charleston County’s housing court, a single magistrate normally handles as many as 20 evictions a day, said Joanna Summey, the county’s associate chief magistrate.
Under the new rules, the number of daily hearings likely won’t exceed a half-dozen, she said.
“These are strange times,” she said. “It’s going to look very different.”