Update: The South Carolina Supreme Court announced it would extend the state eviction moratorium after this story published. It will extend the stay on evictions and foreclosures for another two weeks.
South Carolina’s state moratorium on evictions for unpaid rent is set to expire on Friday. While the federal moratorium continues until at least Aug.24, the expiration of the statewide stay on evictions could translate into thousands of lawsuits, says Adam Protheroe, a housing attorney at SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia.
Under the state moratorium, all properties are covered against evictions for unpaid rent, though evictions for other causes, such as criminal activity or destruction of property, are still allowed.
Under the federal moratorium, not all properties are protected, only those that are federally subsidized or have a federally backed mortgage through a government sponsored enterprise (GSE) agency like Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. About 70 percent of single-family mortgages are covered under one of these two programs; about half of multifamily (i.e., typical rental property) mortgages are backed by a GSE.
The problem, says Protheroe, is that identifying which properties actually fall under federal protection is tricky because the records can be unclear. Tenants typically have no way of knowing o finding out whether the properties they pay rent on are federally subsidized or federally backed, and Protheroe says even landlords often are not sure, given the complexities of property laws.
If South Carolina’s statewide moratorium is lifted as of May 1, Protheroe says it could lead to numerous illegal evictions (some that may be unwittingly illegal) and a massive tie-up in courts.
“The backlog will be huge,” he says.
The bramble that surrounds the question of whether a property would remain protected under the federal moratorium makes guessing expected numbers of potential cases practically impossible, Protheroe says. But for context, the Urban Institute reports that the moratoria covering federally subsidized properties covers “roughly 12.3 million (28 percent) of the 43.8 million U.S. rental units.” About 100,000 of those federal units are in South Carolina. U.S. Census numbers suggest about 720,000 rental properties in South Carolina overall.
There are roughly 140,000 eviction filings in South Carolina, on average, every year. Protheroe anticipates that monthly averages would increase greatly under any lifting of state eviction protections.
Protheroe says state and federal eviction infrastructures were never framed to handle the kind of sudden and confusing situation like the coronavirus pandemic. But he adds that now is not the time to lift protections.
“This public health emergency is not over,” he says. “A lot of concerns over why you would stop evictions in a pandemic like this is because people who don’t have a home can’t go home and stay home.”
He says that should a wave of evictions happen, it would most likely affect low-income and, in particular, African-American residents – the groups that are usually disproportionately affected by economic pressures and by public health crises.
Appleseed, along with several other housing advocacy agencies, has sent a letter to South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty, requesting an extension of the state moratorium to the length of the federal moratorium.
Calls to the SC Judicial Branch were not returned before this story was published.
Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on twitter @ByScottMorgan.