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Editorial: Housing courts merit support to help stem tide of evictions

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Juniper 2.jpg (copy)

Juniper Apartments, a Magnolia Downs complex in West Ashley, sits in an area with some of the highest eviction-filing rates in Charleston County. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

South Carolina ranks among the worst states when it comes to how many renters are evicted, a situation that could get even worse next year as temporary safeguards to ease the economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic run out.

As lawmakers and others look for solutions, Charleston County’s new housing courts have produced some encouraging early successes. The goal of the state’s eviction laws should be to reach a solution where both the number of evictions are reduced and landlords are paid, so these promising results show these courts could play an important role in improving the system.

More local lawyers should consider volunteering for the program, and legal communities in other counties should contemplate replicating Charleston County’s innovative approach.

The county’s first housing court began operating a year ago in North Area Magistrate Court No. 1 to provide tenants with legal representation either to keep them in their rental home or at least to prevent an eviction on their record, which makes it more difficult to secure a new place to live.

Jeff Yungman, an attorney with One80 Place, helps oversee the legal assistance. He says in 61% of the cases in which tenants had lawyers, their cases were either denied, dismissed or settled; in other words, they weren’t evicted. The numbers could have been even better, but in 23% of the cases, tenants either failed to follow through on an agreed-upon payment plan or failed to move out by an agreed-upon date.

Similar housing courts have been set up in the two other North Area magistrate courts and in a West Ashley court. Their relatively recent creation — and a pandemic-related pause in much court activity — means they have handled relatively few cases to date. One80 Place wants to establish these sessions for the court handling evictions in peninsular Charleston, but it needs more lawyers to volunteer.

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In addition to housing courts, state lawmakers should consider other steps to improve the eviction process as the status quo raises questions about efficiency and fairness. As The Post and Courier’s Thad Moore reported Sunday, half of Charleston County’s eviction filings involved fewer than 6% of its rental units. Those 3,500 apartments saw more than 37,000 eviction filings between 2015 and June 2020.

Unfortunately, many tenants are being swept up in a costly and disruptive cycle of struggling to pay on time, facing an eviction filing, then paying court costs and late fees that make it even more of a struggle to pay on time. Pandemic-related job losses and other hardships have exacerbated the problem.

Tenants certainly have an obligation to pay their rent, but landlords can take steps to improve the status quo, too. For instance, Darby Development, which manages about a dozen Charleston area apartment complexes, first offers to lend tenants one month’s rent to get them ahead rather than take them to court. Instead of paying late fees and court costs, they pay toward that loan.

That’s a helpful move, but not necessarily a cure-all: The company still had to file an eviction notice against a tenant 47 times in six years.

State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, also is trying to build support for much-needed landlord-tenant reform.

Improving the eviction landscape could help ease the pain among renters and landlords, who rely on rental income to pay their own bills. Housing courts should be a part of such efforts, which will become even more necessary with a looming wave of evictions that could make a bad situation worse.

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