In South Carolina town, tenants feel effects of expired eviction moratorium
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Experts and journalists are awaiting a flood of eviction filings after the national eviction moratorium expired in August. However, in states across the South, and, in cities like North Charleston, South Carolina, the wave of eviction filings has already arrived. North Charleston, the state’s third-largest city, topped the list of the highest-evicting large cities in 2016, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
Even worse, South Carolina had the highest eviction rate in the country at 19% in 2016 and an alarming 25.7% in 2019, per data collected by SC Housing. But the situation has worsened since the pandemic.
So far, South Carolina has distributed less than 10% of federal rental assistance funds, leaving low-income communities without help to pay housing expenses. The state received $272 million in federal emergency rental assistance but, as of August, had distributed only $1.4 million to 270 of the 9,200 eligible applicants.
What is going on with the eviction crisis in North Charleston? Marketplace’s Amy Scott spoke with Nicole Paluzzi, the housing attorney for Charleston Pro Bono, about the situation facing the city. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Amy Scott: North Charleston was No. 1 for evictions before the pandemic. What were some of the causes?
Nicole Paluzzi: Well, a lot of the causes can be related to income inequality and rent burden, which is when a family is paying more than 30% of their household income towards housing expenses monthly. Another cause is that there are issues with wages keeping up with those expanding rental rates. We don’t have any programs that stabilize rents, like rent control, in our area. So as more people are flocking to Charleston because it’s a wonderful area to live, the rents increase with the demand and people that are considered working poor, they become rent burdened and unable to afford those rental amounts, and then they get evicted for nonpayment of rent.
Scott: So, what are you seeing now without that federal protection in place? Are you seeing more evictions and more people actually being removed from their homes?
Paluzzi: We actually are in our area. Now, I know there was an article recently saying that the tsunami was not seen in a number of metro areas. But in Charleston County, we see an influx of people demanding assistance with eviction defense. Our dockets have increased in size and volume. My most recent term of housing court actually had extra judges brought in so that they could increase the amount of cases that could be timely heard, while providing those housing court resources to the tenants who are needing advocacy and support resources.
Scott: Now there’s all this money that’s supposed to be preventing widespread evictions, right? There are billions of dollars in federal emergency rental assistance. I understand that as of August, South Carolina had only distributed a fraction of the $272 million the state received. What are the hang-ups?
Paluzzi: A lot of them are procedural burdens. Charleston County was large enough and had the infrastructure to be able to operate their own pot of emergency rental assistance payment money. And of that program, the people that are applying are not experiencing as many procedural burdens. But at the state level, there was a backlog because there was a need for the tenants to be able to provide the adequate documentation and application to the program. And when you’re talking about persons who would need rental assistance, you’re talking about a very-low-income demographic, so they don’t have stable internet or access to a scanner. So they needed to first find the assistance, find the technical support, gather their evidence, upload those files, and then it created a bottleneck because all of the applications were coming in at the same time.
Scott: Typically, landlords and tenants both need to participate in that program to get the money. I’m wondering if you’re seeing any reluctance on the part of landlords who may actually prefer to get a tenant out, then get the money or the relief.
Paluzzi: Unfortunately, yes, that is exactly what I’ve been seeing. We have a number of landlords who have come to court and stated that the relationship has become so strained between them and the tenant, or the tenant may be five months or more behind in rent, even though they have filed the application timely. We have landlords that refuse to believe that the tenant is acting in good faith. And just yesterday, I had a landlord who said the exact same thing. She did not care that the tenant was fully applied, had approval, and we had a letter from the county emergency rental assistance program that said the only thing outstanding to cut the check was that the landlord had not logged in to create a W-9 profile with the county to receive those funds.
Scott: Given the widespread evictions before the pandemic, before the economic distress that it caused, what do you see as the solution here longer-term in a place like North Charleston?
Paluzzi: I think direct tenant assistance that doesn’t require the landlord to sign off would be helpful. I see that as a failure of equity because the tenant is working toward a goal that’s going to benefit both themselves and the landlord, which is good faith. And I see that these tenants are being delayed or frustrated and their tenancies are coming to an end because they can’t get compliance out of a landlord. And if really they’re not interested in receiving those funds, then they should not be filing actions for possession based on lack of payment of those funds.
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