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‘Normal's Already a Crisis’: Why South Carolina’s Appetite for Eviction Scares Housing Advocates

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Scott Morgan
/
South Carolina Public Radio
Before the pandemic social services agencies and food banks, like Rock Hill's Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen, had their hands full. Housing advocates worry what the end of eviction protections will mean to these organizations and to evicted tenants they fear will have to turn to them.

This story is part of continuing coverage of South Carolina's looming eviction crisis as the CDC moratorium winds down.

From 2000 to 2016, South Carolina landlords evicted more tenants per capita than every other state, according to data compiled by Eviction Lab.

In that timeframe, South Carolina’s overall eviction rate was just shy of 9 percent. The closest rivals were Maryland and Delaware, which each had a little over 5 percent.

At the county level, Florence and Cherokee each had eviction rates over 16 percent. Filing rates — the measure of how many times landlords started eviction proceedings against tenants (because filing for landlords in South Carolina is cheap ($35) and simple, this is a common tactic used to compel tenants to pay owed rent) — in these counties were 39 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

And at the city level, South Carolina had highest eviction rate of any large U.S. city (North Charleston, 16.5 percent) and of any mid-sized U.S. city (St. Andrews, 20.66 percent), as well as 47 of the 100 most eviction-prone rural and small cities in the United States.

All of which scares Eviction Lab researcher Anne Kat Alexander, who worries that when CDC eviction protections end July 31, South Carolina could see a series of evictions at tragic levels.

“When this pandemic is over,” she says, “we can’t go back to normal because normal’s already a crisis.”

Alexander also worries that the scale of evictions won’t register properly with the public. Evictions are not likely to come in one giant, levee-break flood of evictees. But over time, over months, she says, thousands and thousands of South Carolinians are likely to end up on the street, as rubber-stamped eviction hearings make their way through the state’s massively overwhelmed magistrate courts.

Other advocates worry about what’s ahead too. Attorney Adam Protheroe of SC Appleseed Legal Services in Columbia worries that eviction proceedings will ramp up before rental assistance money (to be paid to landlords to cover 18 months of back rents) gets where it needs to go.

Efforts to get those funds out faster are increasing, but nearly a quarter-million dollars earmarked for South Carolina is dripping out s-l-o-w-l-y, and the state Legislature, in charge of seeing that those funds are used properly, is out of session until 2022.

Meanwhile, housing attorney Mark Fessler of SC Legal Services in Greenville says there might not be a deluge of evictees come August simply because the state’s magistrates in charge of adjudicating eviction cases have interpreted the eviction protections to not cover end-of-lease situations. Those leases not being renewed won’t count as formal evictions, in other words, so those cases would not be in magistrate court.

And as large as South Carolina’s eviction numbers are, there are no reliable data on how many informal evictions there are, or are likely to be, when CDC protections end.