Just a mile west of revitalized Park Circle is the low-income North Charleston Ferndale neighborhood where Marquette Cooper's brick home sports broken windows, holes in the ceiling and an uneven cement driveway. 

From October to February, Cooper said she lived in this Alton Street home without a working heater. She said she bought blankets and electric heaters to keep herself, her daughters and her grandson warm. The landlord tried to raise her rent before filing an eviction. 

Down the road, Bennederia Brave rented her Bolton Street home from the same landlord. Brave, who works full time as a truck driver, was shocked when she received notice that her rent was going up. She, too, claimed that the landlord ignored repairs. 

DCPMS Cooper-Austin

Marquette Cooper took DCPMS to magistrate court and won a judgment against the company that she rents her the North Charleston home from. Brad Nettles/Staff

Cooper and Brave are both African-American single mothers who support children and grandchildren in their homes, which they rent from Development, Construction, and Property Management Services LLC, a property management company owned by Jeremy Blackburn. Both women recently won settlements in magistrate's court and had the evictions dropped. 

They claim DCPMS violated state law by refusing to repair essential services and say Blackburn was systematically evicting impoverished tenants. 

On Feb. 28, a judge ruled that DCPMS owed Cooper $1,960. 

"I just tell God, thank you, that the dog fight is over," Cooper said. "Now I'll be able to help other tenants speak up and not be afraid." 

In the past few years, Blackburn has amassed hundreds of homes in some of North Charleston's poorest neighborhoods. Since then, DCPMS has filed eviction notices on 38 tenants, including Cooper and Brave. 

Blackburn has a checkered financial history, with a string of failed investments and a 2013 bankruptcy that reportedly left him with no income and just $50 in the bank. Most recently, the Mount Pleasant resident managed the problem-plagued redevelopment of the Charleston Naval Hospital. But he seems to have rebounded personally, amassing rental property in North Charleston and purchasing a vacant warehouse site in the city from a company controlled by President Donald Trump for $4.1 million.

In an interview with The Post and Courier, Blackburn defended the evictions. Blackburn was accompanied by several employees, a DCPMS attorney and a public relations specialist, who recorded the interview.

Blackburn said Cooper rarely paid her rent on time and denied claims that his maintenance staff ignored the heater issue. Blackburn said his $4 million purchase of hundreds of assorted foreclosed and boarded-up homes is part of a larger plan to help low-income African-Americans own homes. 

"We're rebuilding their neighborhoods," he said. "There's always going to be a couple of people who are disgruntled." 

Ultimately, the courts sided with the tenants. 

On March 6, Magistrate Amy Mikell ruled that DCPMS could not evict Brave because the company had broken several agreements made in the lease, and she ordered DCPMS to pay her $679.50. 

"I feel very uncomfortable evicting Mrs. Brave ... when there were clearly lease breaches by the landlord," Mikell said. 

Blackburn characterized Mikell's rulings as unfair. 

Matt Billingsly, a tenants rights lawyer for South Carolina Legal Services, has helped several people navigate these types of issues. 

He said he usually speaks for his tenants, and property managers defend themselves. That DCMPS hired attorneys caught his attention. The rate at which DCPMS took tenants to court was noteworthy, too. 

"It's always interesting or strange to me if there's a lot of evictions being filed by a company," he said. 

South Carolina law states that tenants have access to the right to "essential services," such as heating.

A negligence to fix a broken heater would violate that law, but tenants have the responsibility to submit that request in writing, Billingsly said. Low-income tenants often do not realize this, and it is rare that, when up against corporate attorneys, tenants win cases. 

Before Brave's hearing, an attorney representing DCMPS offered that the company would drop the eviction notice and offer Brave 30 days to move out. She declined that offer and chose to fight her battle. 

Brave told the judge that in December, DCPMS property manager Kiara Blackburn, who is Jeremy Blackburn's daughter, told her that her rent would increase from $700 to $750. But in February, the rent went to $850.

During a cross-examination, Brave pressed Kiara Blackburn until she remembered having that conversation. 

An attorney tried to turn the tables on Brave and ask her why she was still living in the home, and had not paid March rent. 

"Because you're taking me to court," she replied. 

Mikell ruled in Brave's favor on her $960 out-of-pocket expenses — $210 for her own plumbing, $450 to pave a driveway that consistently flooded and $300 for the two tows she had to purchase when her car was stuck in her muddied, flooded driveway. Because Brave owed money to the company for unpaid rent, her total award was $679.50. 

Just because an eviction has been dropped doesn't mean a tenant can live rent-free, Mikell warned. Brave agreed, and said she planned to put her settlement toward rent and pay the difference to DCPMS. 

Cooper is eager to find a new landlord and leave North Charleston. Brave said she hopes a compromise can be reached with Blackburn's company.

Despite the higher crime rate in Ferndale, she enjoys where she lives. 

"I have made a home here," she said. "I like it." 

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

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.

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