COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster has fought a reputation as a negligent landlord in downtown Columbia for years.
Tenants of rental properties co-owned by the governor and his wife, Peggy, have complained in news reports about water pouring from light fixtures, holes in ceilings, bats and mice.
And as the city of Columbia cracks down on its problem landlords, the McMasters have racked up dozens of code violations in the past three years for a range of issues at their 20 rental properties. Henry McMaster is seeking his first full term as governor next month.
While the McMasters are getting some credit for improvements at the properties that are their main source of income, the conditions at their boarding house on a tree-lined street near the University of South Carolina do little to stem attacks that the governor oversees some rundown properties.
During a visit last week, mold could be seen on a bathroom ceiling shared by the tenants. A back door was easily unlocked from the outside with broken glass near the handle. Dead roaches were caked inside a panel of the kitchen stove.
McMaster rented to a felon who stabbed another tenant in the boarding house in May, law enforcement records show.
A 27-year-old student living in the same boarding house told The Post and Courier that it took the McMasters three months to bring in an exterminator to remove bed bugs.
The apartments, largely located in neighborhoods near USC, brought in $1.3 million of the $1.85 million that the McMasters earned during the past four years, according to their tax returns.
McMaster, through his campaign team, didn't recall the case about the bed bugs. The McMasters spray their properties monthly for pests and upkeep their properties, said Caroline Anderegg, a campaign spokeswoman.
“Of course they are livable," she said. "No one would rent them if they were not."
The broken window at the boarding house was fixed within a week-and-a-half, Anderegg said. Tenants haven't complained about issues with mold or the roaches in the kitchen, she said. The McMasters send cleaners to the boarding house every week.
Some renters at other McMaster properties have told The Post and Courier that the state's first couple is quick to make repairs.
And in recent years, the McMasters have been more vigilant in addressing blemishes to exteriors like peeling paint or trash carts that block the sidewalks, said Kathryn Fenner, vice president of the University Hill Neighborhood Association where the couple rents apartments.
“For the most part, they have cleaned up their act,” she said.
Still, since 2015, McMaster properties have received 117 code violations from Columbia Police.
About two-thirds of the violations were for trash roll carts left on the street, records show. But the citations also include 18 violations to a property’s “structure” and “premise," though include no details.
Records documenting those violations weren’t immediately available and Columbia Police declined to describe them.
The McMasters address their code violations quickly and haven’t been forced to pay any fines, Anderegg said. They employ a property manager.
The McMasters suggested many of the code issues were caused by college students neglecting to clean up after parties or not being mindful of the property.
“The vast majority of tenants at these properties are college students, and college students do college student things,” Anderegg said.
But for neighbors of rental properties that don't follow the rules, issues like leaving a trash roll cart in the yard can add up, said Kit Smith, a former Richland County Council member who helped draft Columbia's 2016 strict rental ordinance. The new rules include revoking business licenses for landlords who rack up enough violations.
"We expect ordinances to be obeyed and enforced," Smith said. "The roll carts — that is a local law and it should be respected."
The McMasters provide all tenants in their lease a list of code rules, Anderegg said.
Tenants in South Carolina have few remedies available for when absentee landlords neglect repairs, allowing major issues to persist.
Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, a Charleston Democrat, is eyeing legislation for next year's legislative session bolstering legal protections for tenants. It would include a protection used by other states allowing tenants to make repairs themselves and deduct those costs from their rent, Pendarvis said.
Asked if McMaster would support the legislation, Anderegg said he wouldn't address a proposal that he hasn't read.
At the McMaster's Greene Street boarding house this year, a violent attack heightened concerns about safety.
McMaster, a former state attorney general, has long championed law and order, but he rented to a tenant this year who served time for a 1984 manslaughter conviction, law enforcement records show. The tenant stabbed a man in the governor’s boarding house in May, police said.
Earl Colleton, 70, received a 15-year sentence for his manslaughter conviction, records show, and has a lengthy criminal record that includes convictions in the 1990s and 2000s for shoplifting and burglary, among other minor crimes.
After an argument at the boarding house in May, Colleton stabbed another tenant in the torso, sending the man to the hospital, police said.
The McMasters don’t perform criminal background checks on tenants, but they have refused to lease to tenants they “believed could be problematic,” Anderegg said.
McMaster vetoed legislation in May that would have expanded the non-violent crimes that ex-cons can get removed from their record, stating "forgiveness should be informed by fact."
At his own rental properties, "Gov. McMaster believes those who commit crimes should serve their time, but once they have, they should be given an opportunity to re-enter society and improve their life, and that certainly includes a place to live," Anderegg said.
The McMasters evicted Colleton immediately after the stabbing, she said.
Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.