An experimental Charleston County court — the first of its kind in South Carolina — aims to reduce the number of evictions by both making renters aware of their rights and by fostering more communication between them and their landlords.

The new court, created by a special S.C. Supreme Court order, was born after a 2018 study by Princeton University reviewed 83 million court-ordered evictions nationwide and listed North Charleston as having the nation's highest eviction rate.

More than one of every seven tenants there were evicted in 2016, the study found.

The problem was not limited to North Charleston: Columbia's courts ordered evictions at a rate of 8.2 percent in 2016, the eighth worst in the country.

"That raised a lot of red flags for everybody," said Mary Vosburgh, a staff attorney with One80 Place, Charleston's homeless shelter. "We decided we needed to do something."

Vosburgh and her One80 Place colleague Jeff Yungman began meeting with attorneys with Charleston Legal Access, S.C. Legal Services, Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services, state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis and others to brainstorm ways to tackle the problem.

They settled on creating a new kind of court, specifically one set up to help tenants make their case. It's expected to launch this fall.

"This is not an anti-landlord movement," Yungman said. "This is a pro access to justice issue."

Hearing them out

Only about 30 percent of tenants facing eviction ever consult with an attorney, so many don't realize they may request a hearing about their proposed eviction under state law.

That hearing has to be requested within 10 days, however, and that often presents a problem, said Sarah Schreiber, an attorney with Charleston Legal Access.

"We get calls from people who either have let the 10 days pass or already have packed up and gone," she said.

After the 10-day period expires, the eviction may be granted by default and it's hard for an attorney to try to rewind the clock.

"Our goal is No. 1, to get people to get those hearings," she said.

Evictions often begin when tenants fail to pay their rent, but others stem from violating the terms of their lease, such as by letting pets or other people stay. Under state law, tenants who violate terms are supposed to be given a chance to solve the problem, such as having that person move on.

Even if an attorney cannot help a tenant remain in an apartment or house, the attorney still could help by negotiating with the landlord so the tenant can move out without a formal eviction, said Matthew Billingsley, a lawyer with S.C. Legal Services who has worked on the pilot court.

Landlords increasingly look at the legal history of their would-be tenants, he said. Those who have an eviction on their record "are going to have a lot more trouble going to the next place," Billingsley said.

'Hit them in the pocket'

Pendarvis, a North Charleston Democrat, noted the emerging Charleston County housing court is new to this state "but it’s been used in many other metropolitan cities."

Last year he filed a bill that would have created landlord-tenant courts across the state. It also would have created a "repair and deduct" policy that would allow tenants to apply their repair-related expenses as credit toward their rent if their landlord fails to fix a problem. 

His bill got some traction this year but ultimately didn't pass.

Pendarvis noted the bill is still pending and that Charleston County's new court will provide new data for lawmakers to going forward.

“Hopefully, this is something that will show the state it can work in a major city and we’ll see this expand across the whole state of South Carolina," he said.

As the court prepares to launch this fall, a central challenge is finding enough attorneys willing to work pro bono — at little or no charge — to help tenants, said Nicole Paluzzi, an attorney with Charleston Pro Bono.

“It is a lofty challenge we’re facing with the staffing," she said. "A lot of it is volunteer attorneys and a number of us already are busy in this area. ... I’d really like to see is a good bit of involvement from the local bar to get the program established and see what a little bit of advocacy can do to help people stay housed."

Meanwhile, students from the Charleston School of Law may help screen tenants to see who qualifies for pro bono help and would can afford legal fees. The Trident Urban League soon hopes to launch a new fund to help otherwise employed tenants catch up on their rent.

Otha Meadows, president and CEO of the league, said many tenants pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent, "and it takes is a bump in a road: Their car breaks down, a medical bill, a debt. If you don’t have a contingency to address that when that happens, you’re faced with paying those bills or being evicted.”

The league's new program, set to begin in September, not only will help such tenants catch up but also will counsel them on how to keep the problem from occurring again, he said.

Paluzzi said that ideally, the housing court would put itself out of business.

Charleston Pro Bono has handled many landlord-tenant cases involving habitability issues — cases where a tenant feels their landlord hasn't made needed repairs.

"I’ve got a number of landlords I’ve seen three, four, five, six times in court. It’s always the same issues," Paluzzi said. "I hate to sound mercenary, but a lot of times you’ve got to hit them in the pocket.”

"If there’s notice to landlords that unlawful evictions aren’t going to happen anymore, that could cut down on the number of filings," she added. "My goal is to have less reason to go to court."

'Talk to each other'

West Ashley Magistrate Ellen Steinberg is one of three Charleston County magistrates whose courts were chosen, along with Magistrates Joanna Summey-Fuller and Amy Mikell. Steinberg said they were chosen based partly on their eviction caseload and willingness to participate.

Steinberg said their involvement isn't as great as the attorneys who are volunteering to help. As a judge, she has seen the need for those facing eviction to be more aware of their legal rights — and how to make their case in court.

"As a judge, we can’t step off the bench and tell a tenant what they can or cannot do or what their rights are according to statute," she said. "More often than not, they’re not going to know what to do."

Steinberg said she hopes there's more communication, not only between tenants and lawyers able to help them but also between tenants and their landlords. She said she often has asked landlords if they have spoken to their tenants, and a common answer is no.

The status quo of high evictions rates isn't good for landlords, who are losing tenants, or tenants, who are losing a home, she noted.

"So much of this is basic communication," she said. "Talk to each other."

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.