Columbia Program Bridges Landlords, Tenants in Eviction Crisis
It’s been a bad year. You lost a lot of work because of the pandemic. You haven’t been able to pay the rent in months. And now your landlord tells you it’s either pay up or pack up.
So do you go? Right now? Pack up your home and leave, with an eviction on your record that will put you in another bad spot when you try to find somewhere else to live?
The truth is, a lot of people would go, mainly because they don’t know they might have options – and allies.
The Columbia branch of the NAACP has launched a pilot program that aims to let tenants affected financially by the coronavirus pandemic know what those options might be; it also lets landlords know what their options (and obligations) are.
The program is meant to serve as a one-stop shop for information about the often-confusing process of eviction, where tenants and landlords tend to break the rules without realizing they’re doing so. NAACP is partnering with SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which advocates for low-income South Carolinians, so that tenants who’ve landed in financial trouble because of the pandemic know they have a pro bono ally in court.
“We’re a resource for the resources,” says Oveta Glover, president of the Columbia branch of NAACP. “People are clueless … if they’ve never been in a situation like this before. They don’t know which corner to turn.”
Volunteer “navigators” help point tenants towards legal representation or rental assistance funding. Neither NAACP nor Appleseed provide funding, but they can help you find whether there may be some.
Navigators can also inform you of your rights as a tenant – for example, in the opening situation of this article, you wouldn’t have to move out immediately. Landlords need to give you time, which is not something tenants always know.
“When [tenants] think that they’re going to be evicted, or they get any type of notice,” says Venus Sabb, one of the program’s navigators, “they automatically think that they need to move out – without going through the process of contacting the landlord to say ‘Can you work with me’ or going to the courts to get some type of stay.”
One big part of the eviction process that a lot of tenants either don’t know they can do or are afraid to try, Sabb says, is talk with their landlords. While Sabb and other navigators understand that there are some landlords who rely on scare and pressure tactics like an eviction threat – which is unusually easy to file as a property owner in South Carolina (click here for a better understanding) – navigators also know that most landlords are open to trying to work something out.
Jay Rinehart of Rinehart Realty in Rock Hill has explained that landlords “hate evictions – it is one of the most costly things that we do.”
But the threat of eviction is often used as a pressure tactic, and it usually works, especially once the paperwork is filed. Even if the tactic is just meant to pressure a tenant whom a landlord doesn’t intend to evict, however, the presence of an eviction filing can haunt a renter for years, making a bad situation worse.
But that’s why NAACP’s new program is intended to help landlords too. Many landlords are not full-time property managers, they’re people with other jobs or even retirees who rent out personal property to make some money. They’re not pro landlords and they’re not real estate lawyers, so just like tenants, a lot of them don’t know they have better options than to file cheap, easy, but potentially destructive legal documents.
“A lot of times [landlords] do want to work with the individuals in the property,” says Larry Salley, the Columbia branch’s economic committee chairman, longtime housing counselor, and program navigator. “But they have a lack of knowledge as to resources.”
Salley darkly refers to the source people get their information from as “jailhouse lawyers.” Those are people who’ve been through an eviction and tell friends or family facing the same problem what they should do. Usually, Salley says, the advice is, at best, inaccurate.
At worst, it could be downright illegal. You can’t for example, just stop paying your rent because the landlord didn’t fix a hole in the ceiling. Stopping rent as a bargaining chip only works for a tenant if the problem they’re having is an actual threat or danger to their safety and the landlord just isn’t doing anything about it.
Even then, it’s a dodgy ploy, and lawyers like Sue Berkowitz, of SC Appleseed, don’t advise it. She does, however, suggest that if you find yourself in a bad situation as a renter, and you are a low-income resident, that you call NAACP or Appleseed to see if there’s something you can do about it.
Berkowitz, an unapologetic activist for housing rights, says that the NAACP program is a welcome step towards getting pandemic-beleaguered renters what they need more than anything besides cash – real, helpful information that can point them to a solution.
“While landlords do need to pay their bills,” she says, “these are people’s homes. Once housing instability happens, everything else falls apart. We’re talking about people not being on the street; we’re talking about kids being able to have a roof over their heads; we’re talking about seniors, who, just because of the logistics of what it takes to move are not going to have the ability to do that. We don’t want to see people going from being housed to homeless because they’re panicking.”
One of the words NAACP members and Berkowitz bring up frequently is patience – the need to not jump to conclusions or take rash actions in a process that takes time to play out. At the same time, everyone is aware of what they’re up against.
Unless extended by the Biden administration, the moratorium on evictions from properties under the federal government will expire at the end of March. A planned moratorium extension is facing legal challenges in federal court.
And moratorium or not, renters do have to pay their rent. The moratorium is not a free ride, it’s just a delay intended to give renters time to get back to where they can afford to pay what they owe.
But given how damaging the pandemic has been on people’s finances – especially on people who went into the pandemic with little money or resources – any delay is not going to stop all evictions from happening eventually.
Amid some dire predictions about what the coming eviction crisis might look like – more that half of Black renters fear they will be evicted even with a moratorium, according to NPR – even NAACP knows their program won’t fix everything.
“We are not going to save everybody,” Sabb says.
But navigators say they are determined to save as many as they can.
- For information on becoming a volunteer navigator, click here.