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Nearly Half the Country's Most Eviction-Prone Rural/Small Cities Are in South Carolina

The country life in South Carolina can be peaceful and quiet. Unless you're facing eviction.
Scott Morgan/SC Public Radio
The country life in South Carolina can be peaceful and quiet. Unless you're facing eviction.

Of the 100 most eviction-prone rural and small cities in the United States, 47 are in South Carolina. Thirty South Carolina rural/small cities are in the top 50.

Those numbers come from the Eviction Lab project at Princeton University, which compiled eviction filings and formal eviction records from 2000 to 2016.

In just those 47 South Carolina rural/small towns, Eviction Lab counted 5,633 evictions. The total number of eviction filings was about twice that, meaning that around half of those renters who had eviction proceedings started against them eventually lost their places of residence.

While the cities of North Charleston and Columbia made headlines last year for their own eviction numbers – North Charleston, in fact, was ranked as the most eviction-prone large city in the country – South Carolina’s most out-of-the-way small towns got effectively no notice for their eviction issues.

But 14 of those 47 rural/small South Carolina cities had higher eviction rates than North Charleston’s 16.5 percent. Four had higher rates than St. Andrews (20.2 percent), which was ranked the most eviction-prone mid-sized U.S. city by Eviction Lab. Harleyville, in Dorcester County, matched St. Andrews’ rate (with 13 evictions; 19 filings; 657 population).

East Gaffney in Cherokee County was the highest-ranking South Carolina city on the rural list. It ranked fourth in the country in total percentage of renters who were evicted – 28.56 percent.

Adam Protheroe with South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia cautions that while such data is useful to help craft a large picture, specific numbers can be tricky, given the myriad ways eviction data get collected by different counties and municipalities in the state and country.

However, he says of South Carolina, “We do have an eviction crisis. We can see that on a broader scale, even if we can’t get down to really detailed numbers.”

Protheroe says South Carolina’s easy and inexpensive filing process is the root of the matter.

“The filing fee for an eviction is $30,” he says. “[It’ll] cost you another $10 to have the sheriff’s office serve it.”

There is an additional mailing fee of $5.

Other states tend to be pricier or more complicated in structure when it comes to evictions. The average cost to file eviction proceedings nationally is about $112, according to Lavar Edmonds, a researcher at Eviction Lab.

Most states – including South Carolina – do not require landlords to hire attorneys for eviction cases, though some, like New Jersey, do require attorneys for evictions involving corporate/LLC-owned properties.

“You don’t see many landlords [here] filing with attorneys,” Protheroe says. “Most landlords represent themselves.”

South Carolina's full application for ejectment (eviction).

On the other side of the filings, most tenants facing eviction don’t have representation either. And because most cases against tenants allege nonpayment of rent, a landlord with evidence of unpaid rent has the upper hand in court, he says.

Edmonds says South Carolina’s “low barrier” for filing eviction proceedings makes it a favored tactic to compel a tenant to pay rent.

“Oftentimes when landlords are filing, they have no intention of trying to remove you from the house,” Edmonds says. “It’s just used as a way to get back rent.”

But Jay Rinehart, owner of Rinehart Realty and Rinehart Property Management in Rock Hill, says eviction is not at all something landlords want.

“We hate evictions,” he says. “It is one of the most costly things we do.”

When a tenant stops paying rent, whatever the reason, Rinehart says, the property owner is out however many months’ rent has been unpaid; and if there is damage to repair, or even need for a new paint job, the landlord/owner is out of pocket for those expenses as well.

So a cheap filing fee is offset by potential thousands of dollars a landlord loses through expenditure and uncollected rent, Rinehart says. And that’s not even counting legal fees for landlords who do hire counsel for court.

This, he says, weighs especially heavily on landlords who only own one property – something common in rural South Carolina. Many rely on a tenant’s rent for their own (frequently fixed) incomes.  

“So [eviction’s] one of the things, from a landlord’s perspective, you just don’t like,” he says.

Still, Edmonds says, landlords do often use eviction filings as a high-stakes debt-collection tactic. And this does more than just scare tenants into paying up.

“Having an eviction filing, having some sort of eviction-related offense on your record, even if you don’t necessarily have an eviction judgment, isn’t going to be good for you,” he says.

Mark Fessler, head of the housing unit at South Carolina Legal Services in Greenville, advises tenants not to withhold rent as a bargaining chip.

“You cannot do that,” he says.

Technically, a tenant can withhold rent and still win a court case, but a) the issue needs to involve an essential service, such as heat or hot water, b) the tenant must have first informed the landlord in writing about the issue, and c) the landlord did not fix the matter.

Fessler does not recommend trying to withhold rent, though. If a tenant has an issue with a property and feels the need to take action against the property owner, he says, it’s best to seek legal advice first.

Why Such High Rural Numbers?

While the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2013 to 2017), found that South Carolina had the fourth-youngest housing stock in the U.S., behind Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia, the survey did not differentiate between rural and non-rural areas.

However, state House Rep. Marvin Pendarvis (D-113th) says many residences in less-developed areas tend to be older and more prone to wear, tear, and deterioration – and that there is little economic incentive to fix things up.

“In rural counties,” he says, “the likelihood of [residences] being replaced or repaired or renovated are slim to none. And the reason is, there’s just not a lot of investment in those areas.”

Then, of course, there is the straightforward economics of affordability – the difficulties rural residents might have in simply paying for housing.

Rent Burden

A widely accepted – if questioned – rule of thumb assumes that a resident is considered to be living affordably if the basic living expenses of rent and utilities cost less than 30 percent of household income.

Many of South Carolina’s rural markets are above that threshold.

According to Eviction Lab’s data, 30 of the 47 rural/small South Carolina cities on the top 100 list have rent burdens that exceed 30 percent. Four had rent burdens in the 40 percent range and three had rent burdens of 50 percent. The median rent burden among all 47 cities is a little more than 33 percent.

Eviction Lab calculated statewide median rent at $790 per month, or almost $9,500 per year. South Carolina’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour – about $1,160 per month, full-time, or around $15,000 per year.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compiled by SC Housing, the median wage for all jobs in South Carolina is about $19 per hour. However, in jobs common to rural areas – manufacturing, industrial, retail, and some civil service jobs – the number is closer to $16 an hour.

A 2017 report by not-for-profit news collaboration website The Conversation, cites research from the University of Oregon stating that rural job growth has been significantly less than metropolitan-area job growth this decade. It also cites research from the University of Montana showing higher rates of disabilities in rural areas, which could contribute to broader affordability problems.

“You see a lot of places where somebody who’s making the local prevailing wage or area median income [but] can’t afford housing in the area,” Protheroe says. Factors like illness, disability, drive time to jobs, and other debts can affect budgets heavily. “And so you’re a car repair or a sick kid away from eviction.”

Pendarvis says one of the biggest factors leading to high numbers of rural evictions is landlords charging higher or increasingly expensive rents as a “hedge for certain types of risk.” Rural areas, he says, are often plagued with high poverty and crime rates, especially where drugs are concerned. Opioids and meth, in particular, have hit rural towns hard across the country, including in South Carolina. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control reported 33,000 opioid-related deaths in 2015 alone.

It’s the hedging against these factors, Pendarvis says, that often leads to higher rents, affordability problems, and the cycle of unpaid rent and eviction proceedings.

The most recent data available on rural rents comes from a 2009 report by the Housing Assistance Council. Among its findings nationally: rural renters typically earn about half what rural owners earn; 11 percent of rural renters live in substandard residences; and more than half of rural households featuring multiple housing problems are occupied by renters.

Poverty Rates

According to Eviction Lab’s data, 22 of South Carolina’s most eviction-prone rural/small cities had poverty rates at or above 25 percent. Ten had poverty rates of at least 30 percent, and two – Gayle Mill in Chester County and Kline in Barnwall County – had poverty rates above 50 percent. Of the 22 rural/small cities with the highest poverty rates, 14 were predominantly white communities.

The Center for Poverty Research at the University of California-Davis put the U.S. poverty rate at 12.3 percent in 2017, while website Statista set South Carolina’s poverty rate at 15.4 percent that year.

Possible Solutions

Pendarvis has introduced a state House bill, on tap for next year’s legislative session, that seeks to both pave the way for a statewide housing court system. South Carolina has only one dedicated housing court – a pilot program in Charleston. Pendarvis is hoping to use the toehold as a way to bring dedicated housing courts, or at least dedicated days for housing hearings, across the state.

“We’ve got to be able to have a process where landlords and tenants are able to come into court, have a judge that is dedicated to hearing those cases,” he says. “That is familiar with landlord/tenant cases.”

Pendarvis’ bill would also allow for the practice of “repair-and-deduct,” which is currently not allowed in South Carolina. Repair-and-deduct would allow tenants to pay for repairs and then take the price of the repair off the rent. If, say, the water heater breaks, Pendarvis says, the ability for a tenant to have it fixed or replaced and then deduct the cost from the next month’s rent would smooth a lot of problems that come from waiting for a landlord to get around to fixing an emergency.

Moreover, Pendarvis says, rural apartment complexes often have long waiting lists for tenants. If the water heater breaks and no one is fixing it, it could be months before a tenant can even move to another place.

From the landlord/property management side, Rinehart says that any statewide court would have to be built fairly to tenants and landlords. In the long run, he believes the answers are more likely to be found at the landlord/tenant level.

“Education can go a long ways,” he says – and he means education for tenants (or, tenants-to-be) as well as for landlords.

“I developed a seven-slide presentation that I wanted to do at one of the universities,” he says.  “It basically was, ‘How to be a Good Tenant.’”

Many colleges do not have on-campus living, Rinehart says; this means people leave home and become renters, but few are taught that they need to read and understand leases, much less about the rights and responsibilities that come with renting.

As for landlords, he says, a short course in how to be a good property manager would go an equally long way towards solving conflicts with renters and towards stopping overreactions from frustrated property owners. This could be especially beneficial in rural South Carolina, he says, where landlords might be learning about tenancy laws as they go.

“How can we solve any issues with landlords that may be in these rural areas? It’s going to have to be education, he says. “Even [if it’s] just a simple one-hour, one-day, half-a-day little ‘Hey, here’s how to deal with tenants,’ and let the local magistrate lead it.”

The South Carolina Bar does host free legal clinics for the public regarding landlord/tenant issues, in various locations statewide. A list of upcoming clinics and links to other free information regarding landlord/tenant issues is available at SCBar.org.

Some Findings based on Eviction Lab’s data:

  • Lexington County appeared most frequently on the list, with five cities – Springdale, Pine Ridge, Swansea, South Congaree, and Gaston. Those towns together contributed 219 evictions, from 422 filings. Three counties – Berkeley, Laurens, and Richland – contributed four cities each.
  • Richland County saw the highest total number of rural/small evictions among the state’s counties, with 1,070 out of 2,568 filings in four cities.
  • The rural/small South Carolina city with the highest eviction rate was East Gaffney, in Cherokee County, at 28.56 percent – 158 evictions out of 289 filings. The rural/small city with the most overall evictions in the state was Dentsville, in Richland County, with 769. That’s about 19 percent of renters in that city.
  • The rural/small South Carolina cities with the highest rent burdens were Winnsboro Mills in Fairfield County, Elgin in Kershaw County, and Graniteville in Aiken County. All had a rent burden of 50 percent, meaning residents spent half their household incomes on basic living expenses. The rent burden for Promised Land (Greenwood County) was unavailable.
  • Dentsville (Richland County) and Gayle Mill (Chester County) were the rural/small cities with the highest percentage of rental properties compared to owner-occupied housing in South Carolina – 65 percent.
  • Of the 47 rural/small cities that South Carolina contributed to the list, 30 were predominantly white communities. However, Eviction Lab did not break down eviction numbers by race, and there is no definitive data on percentages of white, black, or Latino residents (the three most populous ethnic groups in South Carolina) as to which was most prone to eviction.
  • Eviction Lab cautions its data is not perfect and says that its numbers only track formal evictions – meaning those that are filed and executed as such – and not informal evictions, which often take the form of rents being raised beyond a tenant’s ability to pay.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.