State action unclear as half of SC renters at risk of eviction

Renter protections expired in May


Ruta Smith

Advocates for low-income South Carolinians fear hundreds of thousands of them could lose housing in the coming months thanks to a piling on of circumstances.

The state has seen a rise in evictions and homelessness since March, homeless advocates say. Things worsened after May when a state Supreme Court moratorium on court eviction filings was lifted. Now there's a new double-whammy: First, federal aid of $600 per week in unemployment insurance expires next week; and second, a federal moratorium on federally backed rental properties lifts this week.

While many wait to see if Congress will renew protections, it is unclear whether state officials will enact any other protections.

"It scares the crap out of me because of how unprepared we are as a state and a legal community," S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center Executive Director Sue Berkowitz said.

This week, however, the S.C. Department of Unemployment and Workforce (DEW) extended South Carolina a limited unemployment benefit up to 16 weeks beyond the 20 weeks. The average weekly state benefit is $230. The agency has received 685,425 claims since mid-March.

"The groups hardest hit are people who have been working in hospitality, tourism-related restaurants, things that were either immediately shut down or saw demand fall off the cliff," said S.C. Housing Authority Chief Research Officer Bryan Grady. "Job losses in the last recession were a lot more widely spread across economic strata, whereas this crisis took out the financial security of the people at the bottom of the ladder."

Nonprofits brace for a surge in evictions

Low-income and homeless resource nonprofits have reported an increase in need across the state amid the coronavirus pandemic and its associated pinch on the economy.

"We're doubling or tripling the amount we are spending on financial assistance for those getting housed and those who have already been rehoused,"said Marco Corona, chief development officer of One80 Place, a homeless facility in Charleston. He added there has been a "surge in housing and food insecurity" and that evictions and homelessness are often linked.

While the June jobless rate was reported at 8.7 percent and DEW reported unemployment claimants on the week of July 18 fell by 4,983 over the previous week, a state-by-state tool estimates that 281,000 households of renters in the state — more than 53 percent of renters — may be at-risk of eviction.

Consulting firm Stout and The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel developed the tool that estimates the number of households at-risk of eviction and households estimated to be evicted over the next four months by state, based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

Stout estimated Wednesday 190,000 eviction filings could be filed in South Carolina over the next four months. Not all evictions lead to court eviction filings.

Racial and income disparities appear to exist among those concerned they are unable to make next month's rent, according to the survey. More than three-fifths of African-American renters in the state have no or slight confidence in their ability to pay next month's rent. According to last week's numbers, 72 percent of Hispanic renters in South Carolina had little-to-no confidence in paying next month's rent. However, this week's numbers show that Hispanic households with little confidence in making next month's rent is now at 40.4 percent, indicating more people feel confident in making their rent payment compared with last week.

White renters were not as shaky in their confidence: 27.4 percent are worried they will be unable to pay their landlord.

Of renters making less than $50,000, 42.4 percent reported they had little-to-no confidence in being able to pay rent come Aug. 1.

Since the state's moratorium on eviction filings ended in May, South Carolina Legal Services has reported a 170 percent increase in cases of people asking for eviction defense in cases with private landlords. Of the 339 eviction protection applicants in private landlord cases, 157 have been filed in the last two months, according to attorney Mark Fessler.

The S.C. Housing Authority allocated $5 million in federal funds toward a rental assistance program administered through SC Thrive, a statewide nonprofit focused on coordinating assistance. According to the nonprofit, the average one-time payment is $1,500. So far, there have been more than 2,500 completed applications with more than 400 approved for assistance, the nonprofit reported.

Further action unclear in South Carolina

It's unclear if the state will enact any further protections. Gov. Henry McMaster's media liaison Brian Symmes did not respond to questions. McMaster owns several rental properties in Columbia. House Speaker Jay Lucas' spokesman Nicolette Walters also did not respond to a request for comment.

Like the governor, Beaufort Republican Rep. Bill Herbkersman owns commercial and rental properties.

"I just don't evict people, especially right now. Really, you try to work with everybody," he said, adding that he has only evicted two people over 20 years. "The best thing to do is to work out what you can, cut it down to where they can afford it because, first of all, the eviction process takes a long time any how."

The March state court eviction case moratorium was enacted through a state Supreme Court order. Currently, South Carolina has no eviction protections. An attempt to reach Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty through staff was unsuccessful.

Charleston Democratic Rep. Marvin Pendarvis said it took the state's chief justice to enact a moratorium because the governor's office and legislature would not act.

"If the legislature wants to do something it will find a way to do something. It's not for a lack of ability; it's for a lack of will," he said. "That's not something our legislature had the appetite to do."

The legislature will meet in September to discuss the 2020-2021 state budget.

"I'll be asking for reinstatement of the eviction moratorium," Pendarvis said. "My efforts will be met with much resistance."

Advocates say another moratorium could help.

"The more that state agencies or state government and local municipalities can do to address the real pain points people experience in order to be safe, the better," Corona said. "We're in the middle of the crisis and the pandemic and the safest thing people can do is stay in their homes so we need to do everything we can do that people can maintain their homes with high unemployment."

But Herbkersman said eviction is a tool landlords need for bad renters.

"We have to get all the stakeholders to the table. You can't say, 'Hey, you can't evict people' because then you get the bad people who take advantage of that," Herbkersman said. "Then what do you tell the bank? 'The state won't let me make money.'"

He said renters should contact their landlords before they miss a payment and try to work out reduced rent. Staff at SC Thrive encouraged anyone worried about making rent to contact their office through their website. And for those who have already been served an eviction notice, South Carolina Legal Services attorneys said they can provide help.

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