The city of North Charleston has garnered an unwanted distinction: In 2016, the city had the highest rate of evictions in the United States, according to Eviction Lab, a research project at Princeton University which tallied 3,660 evictions in North Charleston that year. That amounts to more than 10 households evicted every day, and the lab calculates that 16.5 percent of renters in the city are evicted each year.
In response, the South Carolina Supreme Court has approved a pilot program that will establish the state’s first-ever housing court in the County of Charleston Magistrate Court in an effort to alleviate the crisis. The Supreme Court issued an order May 24 approving a petition by the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission (SCATJ) to create the program.
As many as 70 percent of tenants facing eviction have no access to legal knowledge or representation, according to South Carolina Legal Services, and low-income tenants spend as much as 70 percent of their monthly income on housing costs.
“We’re trying to have a court set up that improves the representation and the assistance that tenants can get,” said Matthew Billingsley, housing lead attorney for SCLS. “It’s mainly geared towards increasing and improving attorney representation for tenants but also getting more cases and more information in front of judges to review. The hope is to reduce evictions or to reduce people actually being put out of their homes.”
Jeff Yungman, director of legal services for One80 Place, a shelter in Charleston, proposed the idea for the housing court as a member of the SCATJ.
“If they get evicted they end up coming to One80 Place, and since we’re full every night to begin with, if we can do anything to lessen the number of people who need our services and can stay housed–that was the reason for developing this housing court,” Yungman said.
SCLS is working with One80 Place and several Charleston-area pro bono legal groups to establish the new court, which is in its final stages of preparation. Organizers hope to have enough volunteer attorneys to begin services in October.
Yungman said the housing court is modeled after a similar program in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. He was involved in the American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, as were Charleston Legal Access and Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services.
“It may have started with me, but it was certainly a group effort all the way along to get it where it is now,” he said. “The four agencies cannot possibly handle it on their own.”
Yungman emphasized that the program is not an initiative that is aggressively pursuing landlords or property managers. Rather, the goal is to improve communication and help tenants protect their rights so they can do everything they can to stay in their homes. In many cases, both landlords and tenants are not aware of the law, so the court can be helpful on both sides.
“It is a pro-access to justice initiative,” Yungman said. “We just hope to level the playing field so that those folks that are being evicted know their legal rights, have access to attorneys, and can be represented in court if they wish to be.”
Both Yungman and Billingsley said the more attorneys who get involved, the lighter the workload will be among volunteers. They said the time commitment will vary, and attorneys who specialize in housing law will offer training and support.
If successful, the North Charleston program could serve as a model for similar programs in communities throughout South Carolina with high eviction rates. Eviction Lab ranked Columbia eighth in the country and Charleston 32nd in the country for evictions rates.
“The key to the success of it is going to be volunteer attorneys and pro bono attorneys. The benefit is they get in there they get court experience,” Billingsley said.
Interested volunteers can call One80 Place at 843-737-8386.
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