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Magistrate Amy J. Mikell ruled in favor of a tenant on Feb. 28, 2018. The tenant had received an eviction notice from her landlord and she requested a hearing to challenge the eviction. North Charleston leads the nation in eviction rates, according to preliminary findings from researchers at Princeton University. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

A new study by Princeton University provides a detailed look at evictions in America and paints a shocking portrait of what housing looks like in South Carolina. 

A review of 83 million court-ordered evictions listed North Charleston's 16.5 percent rate as the nation's No. 1 eviction market. 

The state capital of Columbia — where courts ordered evictions at a rate of 8.22 percent in 2016 — was the eighth-worst.

While not every jurisdiction in America was included in the study, a Post and Courier analysis of the data found that since 2009, rates of eviction in South Carolina had no correlation with poverty levels, income, race or percent of renter-occupied households. 

While poorer communities are more vulnerable, there is a rising tide of evictions that hurt everybody. 

Stagnant wages, skyrocketing utility bills and landlord-supportive laws are just a few of the factors affecting South Carolina renters, according to attorneys and nonprofit leaders.  

"It still just shows what lack of resources there are in our state," said Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, an advocacy group based in Columbia. 

In 2016, nearly 87,000 evictions were filed in South Carolina. About half — 41,000 — resulted in families or individuals being moved out. 

S.C. Legal Services is likely the largest attorney for tenants who want to challenge their evictions in court. The free legal aid clinic can handle about 400 cases at any given time. 

"Regardless of whether the number is 1,000 or 10,000, every one of them is tragic," said Housing Unit Director Adam Protheroe. "The upheaval that happens to families when eviction happens ... the consequences can be huge and lasting."  

Eviction rate

17%
12.75%
8.5%
4.25%
0

What does eviction look like? 

North Charleston residents are divided into three magistrate courts: North Area 1, 2 and 3. 

Eviction hearings in the North Area 2 Magistrate Court on Melbourne Street were pretty straightforward Tuesday morning. A representative for Total Properties LLC flipped through documents inside a folder while Magistrate Richardine Singleton-Brown eyed a copy of the defendant's lease. 

The tenant couldn't afford his rent. His property manager filed an eviction. The tenant challenged the eviction but didn't show up to his hearing.

Eviction issued; case closed. 

That same day, a scheduler for North Area 3 — a district in the northern part of the city that has seen a rapid increase in housing developments — said the judge could expect between 5 and 7 hearings on a given week. 

The majority of evictions are filed because of rent nonpayment, said Protheroe, the eviction lawyer for S.C. Legal Services.

Proceedings vary greatly between courtrooms. He described a "cattle call," in which judges replace tenants' individual hearings with a group hearing. A SCLS client can be one of 100 people awaiting an eviction decision.

Most don't have legal assistance. 

"It's a massacre," Protheroe said. "You just watch 80 to 90 people get evicted." 

Rates of eviction in rural areas, which tend to be poorer than urban areas but hold less concentrated poverty, were high, too.

"In 2016 we closed 458 eviction cases (from across the state)," he said. "That gives you a sense of how few tenants have attorneys."

There are success stories in North Charleston, too. Last month, two women who lived in the same neighborhood and rented from the same landlord challenged their eviction filings. They alleged the landlord refused to repair essential services.

North Area 1 Magistrate Judge Amy Mikell dropped the evictions and ordered the landlord pay the two tenants damages

What can be done? 

After reading about Mikell's rulings in the aforementioned cases, North Charleston City Council members pressed Mayor Keith Summey to hire more building inspectors during a City Council meeting.

Summey said he was glad to hear the residents won the court hearings but called slum landlord enforcement a civil issue, one handled by the county courts. The mayor's position had not changed after Eviction Lab at Princeton published its data this month, city spokesman Ryan Johnson said. 

"Evictions are wholly a function of the county judiciary," he said. 

Columbia Councilman Sam Davis, who has argued for more affordable housing in the area, said it’s likely up to council to offer incentives, like tax credits, to private owners to keep their rents down.

"We can’t dictate rent," he said. "No municipality can do that."

Berkowitz, the director of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said there is plenty that local municipalities can do while working within the confines of state law. 

Mayors and councils could look at community development block grant money and figure out ways to help build more housing, for example. 

"This is an economic development issue as much as anything else," Berkowitz said. "We keep talking about enticing businesses to our state, but we keep forgetting about the actual people." 

Minorities and low-income residents in urban communities where gentrification is taking hold are more likely to be disproportionately affected, she said. 

Ultimately, changes to the state law are needed, Berkowitz said.

Eviction doesn't seem to be an issue at the forefront of legislation in the last few years. Very few bills were introduced and the sole bill dealing with evictions in the Senate was one that would have actually sped up the process for landlords. Because poor people have such weak political pull, Berkowitz said reform is approached with caution. 

The current law is better than none at all, she said. 

"Everybody thinks our country, our state is past all this," Berkowitz said. "Whether it’s ensuring there’s equity in work, equity in housing, equity in how the criminal justice system works, equity in how we feed people. ... We are not there yet."

'Affordability crisis'

The Eviction Lab at Princeton released data on all recorded court-ordered evictions in the United States between 2000 and 2016.

"In recent years, renters’ housing costs have far outpaced their incomes, driving a nationwide affordability crisis," according to the report's methodology. "Current data from the American Housing Survey show that most poor renting families spend at least 50 percent of their income on housing costs. Under these conditions, millions of Americans today are at risk of losing their homes through eviction."

The researchers found that nearly 900,000 evictions were ordered in 2016.  

The Palmetto State saw a spike in eviction rates from 4.32 percent in 2015 to 8.87 percent in 2016. Given that the researcher's data collection methods did not change, it is unclear why the rate doubled. Researchers from The Eviction Lab team plan to speak with The Post and Courier this week. 

In its report on the data, The New York Times noted that the government does not collect data on evictions, and the Princeton figures are likely conservative.

The data set is incomplete, and as more cities are studied, North Charleston and Columbia may lose their spots on the top 10 list. 

Joseph Cranney, Emory Parker and Bryan Brussee contributed to this report.

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.