COLUMBIA — With rent due this week, South Carolina has installed few safeguards that some lawmakers and legal advocates say would provide critical relief during the coronavirus outbreak for tenants who are unable to pay.
The state has suspended all evictions as tens of thousands suddenly find themselves unemployed. But that order doesn’t prevent tenants who may be out of work from still owing or falling behind in their rent every month.
Calls for state or local officials to enact additional protections — like funding for assistance or a temporary stay on rent — have yet to take hold here. Governments in other states have begun to enact such measures.
Among those who have been quiet on the issue: Gov. Henry McMaster. A letter from a Charleston lawmaker, requesting the governor intervene, has sat on McMaster’s desk for a week.
Meanwhile, at the roughly 20 rental properties in Columbia that the governor personally owns, McMaster has continued to collect rent from his 200-plus tenants.
That includes monthly amounts collected this week from University of South Carolina students who rent from the governor in a tree-lined neighborhood near campus.
It also includes rent charged week-to-week at two of the governor’s boarding houses that lodge 16 tenants, several of whom are out of work, said John Gregg, property manager of the governor’s PJM Properties.
Through a spokesman, McMaster said he didn’t have time to discuss details of his rent arrangements or how much he has recently collected.
The Post and Courier reviewed McMaster’s tax returns prior to the 2018 election and found that his rental properties brought in $1.3 million of the $1.85 million that he and his wife earned during the previous four-year period.
McMaster is paid a $106,000 public salary as governor.
McMaster said relief is coming for tenants from the federal government through “significant” increases in unemployment payments and $1,200 stimulus checks.
“The governor recognizes that these are difficult times for many,” spokesman Brian Symmes said.
Gregg, McMaster's property manager, insisted he is willing to work with tenants, including those who request payment plans. But he stressed that tenants must maintain their responsibility to pay rent.
“They all know we’re not going to evict,” Gregg said. “But at some point they have to figure something out.”
That position doesn’t go far enough for some Democratic lawmakers.
“It would shock me if our governor is continuing to collect rent on property that he owns in a time like this,” said Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, a North Charleston Democrat.
“I would hope that, if this is something he was not aware of, when he becomes aware of it, he would take the proper actions and give some relief to those tenants,” he added.
Pendarvis’ district in the Lowcountry is host to the highest eviction rate in the nation, according to a Princeton University analysis of 2016 data from across the country.
Advocates cautioned that evictions will mount in the coming months if tenants who are out of work rack up thousands in rent owed to their landlords. Last month’s order from S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty halted evictions through May 1.
Beatty released another statement Thursday, stressing that his order did not relieve tenants of their responsibility to pay rent.
That’s why it’s critical for landlords to offer relief to tenants now, if possible, or for state or local officials to step in, Pendarvis and others contend.
Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia Republican who also rents to commercial tenants, defended McMaster. “If people are willing to pay and haven’t argued that they have a problem, why would you not collect rent?” he said.
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Charleston Democrat, sent McMaster a letter on March 27 urging the governor to issue statewide safeguards for tenants lasting no fewer than 90 days. McMaster has not responded, Gilliard said.
Symmes, the McMaster spokesman, dismissed the notion that there’s anything the governor can do for the state’s tenants.
“I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but no, the governor cannot void contracts between consenting citizens,” Symmes said.
Other states and large cities have taken steps to protect tenants.
Governors in Massachusetts and Arizona each announced $5 million in emergency funding, made available through state housing programs, allowing tenants to apply for rental assistance. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issued an order allowing tenants affected by the virus to defer rent payments until May 15.
It’s unclear if McMaster would encounter legal challenges if he tried to enact similar measures here.
Symmes insisted that funding for rental assistance would have to be approved by the Legislature. Rep. Murrell Smith, the House’s top budget writer, said that might not be necessary. He suggested the governor could install a program through the S.C. State Housing Finance & Development Authority, an executive agency.
“We have historically given agencies flexibility to handle problems like this,” Smith, a Sumter Republican, said.
It’s too soon to say how many of the state’s tenants will miss this month’s rent, or how many landlords will offer relief out of their own pockets.
Landlords stress that they also have few protections. Collecting rent is essential for paying their own bills, including monthly mortgage payments, they contend.
But here and elsewhere, stories of charitable landlords have begun to trickle in.
A Brooklyn landlord forgave this month’s rent for the roughly 200 tenants across his 18 properties, The New York Times reported Friday. Some Charleston-area landlords took to social media to declare that they would delay scheduled rent increases or cut rents in half.
GrayCo Properties — which has units in Mount Pleasant, North Charleston and Summerville — has taken another approach.
The company extended April’s deadline for payments 10 days and offered a one-time partial concession of this month’s rent for those who pay on time. The company also installed a random drawing at each property, where each resident can win a free month’s rent in May.
Donna Bolewitz, director of marketing, said her group recognizes they are “part of the larger local community and we are all in this together.”
'Soften the blow'
To be sure, among the state’s landlords, McMaster is far from alone in continuing to collect rent.
Apartment groups in Charleston and Columbia have urged landlords to follow guidelines from the National Apartment Association.
As of now, tenants must continue to pay rent, unless their landlord tells them otherwise. At the same time, landlords should be reasonable, said Donald Wood, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Columbia.
That includes considering waiving late fees, and accepting payment plans.
“What we’ve advised our members — try to soften the blow,” he said. “Be respectful of what people are going through.”
At McMaster’s own properties, manager Gregg said he has waived late fees this month and has agreed to offer payment plans to any tenant who requests one. Only a handful of tenants have reached out, Gregg said.
Among those tenants is Larry Steele, a 47-year-old dishwasher who has lived in a McMaster boarding house for nearly two months.
Until recently, he worked in the kitchen of a bar on Main Street in Columbia. That was until he was laid off on March 17, after McMaster ordered all bars and restaurants across the state to close.
Steele has some savings, he said, but that won’t cover rent indefinitely. In the meantime, Gregg has hired Steele and a small crew of other tenants to perform landscaping work on McMaster’s properties.
Steele said he’s being paid $9 an hour. With enough hours, he can cover his boarding house’s required $135 per week, and have some cash left over.
Standing outside his home, he said for now it’s the only way he can keep up with rent.
“It has to be paid,” he said.