With landlords using the courts as de-facto bill collectors, North Charleston’s eviction rate is the highest in the country

In a digital drop of Knowlesian proportions, a team of researchers at Princeton University has released the most detailed portrait of American evictions thus far and has come to a stunning conclusion: North Charleston’s eviction rate more than tripled from 2015 to 2016, making it the highest eviction market in the country.

Beginning in 2017, the team at Eviction Lab — led by sociologist, professor, and author Matthew Desmond — pored over 83 million eviction records dating back to the year 2000. The data, released earlier this month, is mostly based on available court records, but it provides the most accurate glimpse into an insidious facet of the national and regional housing crisis.

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 by a judge.

What’s more: North Charleston had an eviction filing rate of 35.62 percent, meaning that almost 36 eviction proceedings were started per every 100 renters in the city in 2016.

The second city with the most evictions per renters was Richmond, Va. There, 17 people a day enter the painful and disorienting reality of eviction based on the most recently compiled data, but the percentage of evictees as it relates to the population — which is more than double that of North Charleston — is lower. Columbia was the eighth worst city on the list, with an eviction judgment rate of 8.2 percent, amounting to six eviction per day in 2016.

Matt Billinglsey is a Charleston-based eviction attorney for South Carolina Legal Services, a non-profit providing free legal aid to low-income South Carolinians in civil cases.

Though more than 86,000 evictions were filed in South Carolina in 2016, S.C. Legal Services had the resources to represent tenants in only 458 cases. For comparison, more than 41,000 South Carolinians were eventually ordered to pack their belongings and start anew elsewhere in 2016.

The figures compiled by Eviction Lab reveal an interesting trend. Though the number of eviction filings in North Charleston actually decreased from 2015 to 2016, the number of people who were ordered out of their homes by a judge more than tripled, going from 1,148 in 2015 to 3,660 in 2016.

Billingsley acknowledges the spike in eviction judgments in North Charleston, but says he hasn’t noticed anything suspicious in the process delivering these catastrophic results.

"The judges here are pretty good," he says. "I didn’t see anything that would draw some red flags as far as the court system goes."

Experts agree that South Carolina has fairly middle-of-the-road housing laws. The causes of the high eviction rates in the area are more directly tied to evergreen issues: housing segregation, poverty, and lack of legal information. The New York Times noted that, in Richmond’s case, the city houses many poor African-American communities in low-quality housing with little chances for upward mobility.

Four of the top five cities with the highest eviction judgments are more than 48 percent African-American, according to U.S. Census estimates.

In Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester counties — the three jurisdictions comprising North Charleston — the filing fee for an eviction is $40, and a writ of ejectment with the help of a constable or a county deputy costs an additional $10. All in all, it only costs landlords $50 to get a tenant out of their property in most of South Carolina for something as simple as being 5 days late on rent after a written notice, as allowed by state law.

The cost to aggravated landlords is higher in states like Minnesota ($287 in district court) or Massachusetts ($120 in housing court).

"One thing that’s a little bit peculiar to South Carolina is that our evictions, compared to other states, are very cheap," says S.C. Legal Services housing unit director Adam Protheroe. "A lot of landlords aren’t very reluctant to file, and they also use evictions as a rent collection technique. You’ll see serial filings, and it suggests that landlords are using that for rent collection."

This misuse of the judicial system may even be inflating the city’s eviction rates — and it caused a headache for Princeton’s researchers.

James Hendrickson, a researcher at Eviction Lab, says that the team also noticed a pattern of serial evictions against the same tenants in South Carolina’s court records.

"Even though the data indicates that an eviction or judgment was issued, that person shows up a month later," Hendrickson says. "From that, we can tell they haven’t left the property. We do our best to count them one time, rather than multiple times."

Hendrickson and his colleagues are still in the process of interpreting their own numbers through meeting with legal aid centers, housing advocates, and experts throughout the country. One thing that stuck out to him is the income disparity between North Charleston and its wealthier neighbor.

"The median cost of rent [in North Charleston] was about $900 dollars, and in Charleston it was $1000," he says. "But in comparison to median household income, it looks like [the difference is] about $15,000 a year. It’s an interesting question in the interplay between income and rent."

Though the amount of people who actually vacate their properties following an eviction order is up in the air, it’s also unclear how many renters simply leave their properties when asked by their landlords without involvement from the courts.

There are three reasons why landlords can file for eviction under the state’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Act: nonpayment of rent, end of lease, or a violation of the terms of the lease. That first reason is responsible for the vast majority of the state’s filings, according to Protheroe.

"Cost burden is what it comes down to," Protheroe says. "We see a lot of people who are paying 50, 60, 70 percent of their income just on rent, not on food or utilities. A high light bill will do it, a sick kid would do it."

The Eviction Lab methodology puts part of the blame on wage stagnation and rising rents.

"In recent years, renters’ housing costs have far outpaced their incomes, driving a nationwide affordability crisis," according to the report. "Current data from the American Housing Survey show that most poor renting families spend at least 50 percent of their income on housing costs. Under these conditions, millions of Americans today are at risk of losing their homes through eviction."

Evictions in the area are so common that the three Magistrate Courts handling cases in North Charleston have resorted to what are commonly referred to as "cattle calls" to deal with the cases. In these mass hearings, multiple defendants are called up to the podium one by one to explain their case, often without representation.

"You just watch tenant after tenant get evicted," Protheroe says. "They don’t know there is a defense, or they don’t know how to argue it. It’s difficult to watch sometimes, but there are rules that prevent us from trying to snatch clients in situations like that."

Kendra Stewart, a professor at the College of Charleston and director of the Riley Center for Livable Communities, says multiple factors have created a "perfect storm" raining down evictions upon North Charleston’s tenants.

"First, we have seen tremendous growth in the region," Stewart wrote via e-mail. "This of course creates a strain on the housing market and has led the cost of housing (both home ownership and rent) to increase at a greater rate than wages.

"Add to this three years of record flooding that has hit the most vulnerable neighborhoods the hardest. Often landlords don’t repair flood damage in lower-rent homes or apartments for various reasons, leaving tenants to either stop paying rent or use their rent money to make repairs rather than paying the rent. Either case leaves them vulnerable to eviction."

A spokesman for the City of North Charleston did not respond to a request for comment, but he deferred responsibility for the city’s eviction crisis to the courts when speaking to The Post & Courier.

"Evictions are wholly a function of the county judiciary," city spokesman Ryan Johnson told the Charleston newspaper.

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