I had the honor of participating in the first Housing Court session held in the state of South Carolina on Oct. 2. The Housing Court’s aim is to provide legal services to indigent tenants who live in Charleston County and are facing eviction. This court was created after North Charleston was listed as having the nation’s highest eviction rate in a recent study published by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
The first Housing Court eviction hearings were conducted in North Area Magistrate Court 1. Merritt Abney, a partner in our firm’s Charleston office, and I participated as pro bono attorneys representing indigent tenants. Judge Amy Mikell presided and was patient and understanding with respect to the process. Several wonderful folks from the groups referenced below were there to advise and assist us.
We did not know who our clients would be or what their issues were until they showed up right before their hearings. Thus, this experience was a pure form of “on your feet,” fast-paced legal-issue spotting.
The goal of the Housing Court hearings is to provide all parties with an opportunity to resolve issues without an eviction. When put into practice, this is exactly what happened. At the Oct. 2 session, it became evident that a lack of communication between the landlord and the tenant led to most of the evictions being filed. Having a pro bono attorney present helps indigent tenants understand their options and rights.
But from my experience, it seems even more important that the pro bono attorney can help the landlord and tenant communicate in order to reach an outcome positive for both sides. Further, if all else fails, the pro bono attorney can negotiate with the landlord to let the tenant move out without a formal eviction judgment on his or her record. Such a judgment is very detrimental to securing future housing. In line with these goals, at the Oct. 2 session, we avoided evictions for three tenants, and one of these cases was continued. Another case was dismissed because the tenant moved out voluntarily prior to the hearing.
Many different legal groups, providers and partners came together to get this pilot Housing Court program off the ground, including South Carolina Legal Services, One80 Place Legal Services, Charleston Legal Access, Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services, Charleston County Magistrate Courts, Charleston School of Law, Norah Rogers — the pro bono administrator at Nelson Mullins, Trident Urban League, 2-1-1 Hotline and the city of Charleston.
In addition, Judges Ellen Steinberg, Amy Mikell, and Joanna Summey-Fuller, whose courts were chosen to kick-start the Housing Court pilot program, are all committed to ensuring the success of this project.
From an attorney’s perspective, this was one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences I have ever had. I feel honored and proud to be a part of the Housing Court project. I believe this will be a successful program that will help many tenants keep their homes and landlords keep their tenants. I look forward to volunteering again, and I hope to see engagement from many of my Charleston Bar colleagues. Young attorneys and/or those with limited courtroom experience, like me, would also benefit from participating in this project, in addition to having a chance to help people facing eviction navigate this difficult and often scary situation.
To volunteer for this great pro bono opportunity, please contact Jeff Yungman at email@example.com.
Olesya V. Bracey is an associate in the Charleston office of Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough.