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Inflated eviction filings spark debate over SC's landlord-tenant laws

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S.C. Chief Justice Donald Beatty ordered halt to evictions amid coronavirus

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty ordered a statewide halt on evictions on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in response to the coronavirus outbreak. File/AP

It was business as usual for some Charleston County landlords seeking to remove renters from their properties in the days after a state Supreme Court order that temporarily halted evictions due to COVID-19 expired.

Landlords filed at least 151 eviction notices in the county's magistrate courts during a three-day period after the order expired on May 15. That might seem like a large number, but it's roughly the same pace as before the court order gave tenants a temporary reprieve.

The rash of filings points to a dispute over how the state's eviction laws should function. Habitual filers use them as cheap, court-enforced dunning letters, tenants' rights lawyers say. Landlords say the notices are meant to nudge communication from past-due tenants in the hopes of keeping them in their homes.

Either way, the sheer number of court filings presents a distorted view of the extent of Charleston County's eviction problem.

Before the Supreme Court order was issued in mid-March, Charleston County's magistrate judges were handling more than 1,200 such filings each month, according to a review of court records.

But relatively few of those filings actually result in tenants being forced to leave their homes. A Princeton University study based on 2016 data showed fewer than half of tenants were actually evicted. The number of notices this year resulting in a forced eviction — called a writ of ejectment — is less than 10 percent, although some cases are still pending.

AMCS, a locally owned property management firm, routinely files eviction notices against apartment tenants, but not before reaching out to them at least twice to remind them their payments are due.

"The fact that we go to the magistrate as allowed by law should not be held against the industry," said Jamie Kerr, president of ACMS, adding both sides need to communicate for a lease agreement to succeed.

"We are not in the business of evicting residents," he said. "In fact, turnover creates increased cost to the apartment community ... (and) vacancy days are lost income."

Adam Protheroe, an attorney with SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia, said many landlords use eviction filings — which cost just $40 and are usually charged back to the tenant — as a pressure tactic. Many times the same landlords file notices against the same tenants month after month, even when they believe the tenant will eventually pay.

"The cost of an eviction is really low, so landlords don't hesitate to file," said Matthew Billingsley, a lawyer with South Carolina Legal Services, which offers free legal help in a range of civil actions. "They don't think, 'If I work with this person it might benefit me more'."

In the relatively rare instances where tenants are forced to leave their homes, it's often due to a combination of stagnant wages and rising rental costs. 

"Rents are high, and people can't afford it," said Nicole Paluzzi, housing attorney with Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services. 

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Charleston County has one of the highest rates — 28.1 percent — of South Carolina renters who spend more than half of their gross income on housing, according to a study by the state's Housing Finance and Development Authority.

Industry analysts say despite the costs, most tenants consider paying rent their top priority.

A survey by the National Multifamily Housing Council showed 93.3 percent of U.S apartment households had made full or partial rent payments as of May 27, despite job losses and economic hardships created by COVID-19. That's up from 91.7 percent in April.

"Each week we see new evidence that Americans are prioritizing rent and that the work apartment firms did to create flexible payment plans is paying dividends," said Doug Bibby, the council's president.

Those who do fall behind and receive an eviction notice often find the filing has long-term consequences, even if they catch up on their rent. Often, just the existence of an eviction filing on a court's public index can keep renters from finding a new home.

Protheroe said he has advocated for sealing eviction filings or removing them from the public record in instances where a case is either settled or dismissed.

Judges and court administrators balk at the idea, though, saying there is nothing in state law that gives them the authority to remove a notice from public view.

Other states are taking action to give tenants more time to catch up on late rent. Courts in some Virginia counties, for instance, dismiss an eviction case if the tenant can bring 25 percent of what they owe to the first court date and pay off the remaining balance in installments over three months while staying current on their rent.

Charleston recently started the state's first housing court, where lawyers working for free help tenants negotiate with landlords to avoid evictions. Paluzzi said 65 percent of the renters who participate have remained in their homes. When that's not possible, the court helps tenants negotiate for more time to leave so they aren't left without a place to go.

Kerr, with AMCS, said most landlords want to be flexible but they also have bills to pay, such as mortgages, utilities and property taxes. Eviction notices are a tool, he said, to give residents "the opportunity to get the rent obligation caught up."

As the economy continues to reel from COVID-19, Kerr said property managers are helping tenants find rental and utility assistance as well as waiving late fees.

"AMCS is in the business of renting homes," he said, "and we are willing to work with our residents, especially in these difficult times."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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