COLUMBIA — The chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a halt to evictions statewide, a decision advocates had stressed was critical to protect vulnerable residents during the coronavirus outbreak.
The move came in the wake of The Post and Courier's reporting on Monday proceedings in which two families were ordered from their homes. Those eviction orders will now be postponed following the mandate, according to an area lawmaker.
The order from Chief Justice Donald Beatty postpones eviction court proceedings until May 1. It allows for exceptions in cases of emergency actions involving threats to property or health. Other states hit hard by the virus — including New York, Massachusetts and Kentucky — have issued similar stays.
The order came a day after Beatty postponed South Carolina’s jury trials, but stopped short of a complete moratorium on minor criminal and civil cases in municipal and magistrate courts, including evictions.
Amid the delay, Lexington County Magistrate Rebecca Adams on Monday ordered two families out of their homes within 10 days, The Post and Courier reported.
The evicted included: A father of four and his pregnant wife, and a single mother who complained of a cough. Evictions for both families were filed by Gleneagle Apartments in Columbia.
After Beatty’s order was handed down Tuesday, Adams indicated the court would no longer force the two families from their homes. The judge had not yet issued formal ejection orders, and Adams told Sen. Katrina Shealy that those orders will now be postponed, said Shealy, a Lexington Republican.
Adams didn’t return email or phone messages left by The Post and Courier. Gleneagle’s assistant property manager, Clark Gray, didn’t return a message left at his office.
Still, advocates who have been pressing for a statewide halt on evictions praised Beatty’s decision Tuesday.
“We’re really thrilled,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center.
She and others stressed the need to keep people, including low-income tenants, in their homes during the deadly pandemic. Putting people out on the streets places them and others at greater risk of infection, they contend.
“That kind of a pause on evictions, even for six weeks, is going to be huge,” Berkowitz said.
South Carolina’s urban areas are home to some of the highest eviction rates in the nation, according to a Princeton University analysis of 2016 data.
Among large cities in that study, North Charleston ranked first. Columbia came in seventh.
Magistrates handle all the state’s evictions, in addition to minor criminal matters such as petty theft or public drunkenness. Municipal court judges preside over similar offenses.
But on Monday, there seemed to be little continuity across the state in how judges responded to the virus outbreak.
Some magistrates shut down their courtrooms altogether. But in Lexington, Adams presided over a stack of evictions.
One involved Tammy Thompson, a 46-year-old single mother who complained of a cough. She owed Gleneagle apartments more than $6,000 in rent and late fees. Adams ordered her and her 6-year-old son out of their home within nine days.
“I don’t know how I can help you,” Adams told Thompson.
Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, a Charleston Democrat, commended Beatty for taking action after The Post and Courier reported on the proceedings.
“Once that came out — taking a look at what happened in Lexington and taking a look at what’s happening nationally, he felt compelled to act,” Pendarvis said.