Housing Court: Addressing the High Eviction Rate for Low Income Renters, 0920 SCBJ, SC Lawyer, September 2020, #56

AuthorBy Jeff Yungman.
PositionVol. 32 Issue 2 Pg. 56

Housing Court: Addressing the High Eviction Rate for Low Income Renters

Vol. 32 Issue 2 Pg. 56

South Carolina BAR Journal

September, 2020

By Jeff Yungman.


In 2017, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University released the most detailed portrait of American evictions thus far and came to a stunning conclusion: North Charleston’s eviction rate more than tripled from 2015 to 2016 making it the highest eviction rate in the country. North Charleston averaged a whopping 10 evictions a day in 2016. Sixteen-and-a-half percent of renters in the 104,000-person city were officially ordered to leave their homes. What’s more: North Charleston had an eviction fling rate of 35.62 percent, meaning that almost 36 eviction proceedings were started per 100 renters in the city in 2016.1 In contrast, the average eviction fling rate across the United States in 2016 was 6.53 percent and in South Carolina it was 8.87 percent.[2]

In recent years, renters’ housing costs have far outpaced their incomes, driving a nationwide afford ability crisis. Current data from the American Housing Survey[3] shows that poorer renting families spend at least 50 to 70 percent of their income on housing costs. There are varied reasons for people becoming homeless, but often, homelessness stems from the inability to afford a place to live. There are many households where individuals work multiple jobs, but because of other expenses such as medical bills, crippling debt, or other negative financial circumstances, they cannot afford to pay for housing. Under these conditions, many families are constantly at risk of losing their homes through eviction.

An eviction is a cause of poverty, not a condition of poverty.4 When an individual or family experiences an eviction, there are consequences well beyond just the loss of their home and possessions. Evictions frequently result in community instability, school instability, and employment instability. Evictions can be even more traumatic for vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly. In many cases, an eviction results in psychological trauma that can take years to overcome. Studies have shown that individuals and families who are evicted experience 20 percent higher levels of material hardship.5 Material hardship includes, among other things, going without food and enduring illness or going without electricity, water, or a phone due to lack of funds. These same studies indicate that material hardship remains at high levels at least two years after an eviction.

Eviction can be the first step in the downward spiral to homelessness, but legal strategies can be used to stop that spiral. One study6 estimated that 70 percent of households facing eviction receive no legal representation. Yet, tenants with counsel are more likely to appear in court and are significantly less likely to be evicted than their unrepresented counterparts irrespective of the merits of their case. Lawyers can ensure that evictions are lawful, defenses are effectively asserted, and can help secure other relief that may prevent homelessness.

First steps

In response to the eviction crisis in the City of North Charleston and Charleston County in general, a collaboration of local and state groups created an implementation committee to assist the overwhelming number of individuals who are faced with evictions. The goal was to reduce the number of people who appear unrepresented at eviction proceedings in Magistrate Court by developing a specific Housing Court program. This group included representatives from One80 Place Legal Services, Charleston Legal Access, Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services, South Carolina Legal Services, three Charleston County Magistrate Court judges, the Charleston School of Law, Nelson Mullins law firm, Charleston Trident Urban League, 211 Hotline, and the City of Charleston. The efforts of the implementation committee were supported by the SC Access to Justice Commission.

Although new to Charleston, a Housing Court is not a new concept. Prior to implementing what was to be known as the Charleston Housing Court Pilot Project (CHCPP)...

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