South Carolina legal aid attorneys are expecting a “flood of evictions” in the coming months as the last line of protections for those who live federally subsidized homes expired Aug. 24.
The moratorium on evictions proceedings that Congress’s CARES Act provided expired in July, but landlords of federally-backed properties had to wait 30 days before they could file eviction papers. On Aug. 25, those filings resumed.
South Carolina’s own moratorium on evictions expired on May 15, and the state government has so far declined to reinstate it. As such, there’s only a limited amount of emergency funding available for the large number of renters on the verge of evictions, and South Carolina law isn’t on a renter’s side.
Sue Berkowitz, an attorney and director of the legal aid agency South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said her agency is advising people to not ignore the notices, because the situation won’t go away on its own. It’s referring people to Legal Services and is working to bring attorneys together to coordinate and work together to solve the problem and is also asking encoding large law firms to help.
“We hope that if they hear this call, the firms will help as this problem is much bigger than what any one program can do,” Berkowitz said. “No one group or person can take this on alone, this is why it is important that we all work together as a legal community and recognize that if we come together, as one coordinated group, we can make a difference in what our client community in South Carolina will face.”
Half of renters could be at risk
South Carolina has historically had a high eviction rate, and the pandemic has added another layer to what was already a grave problem, Berkowitz said.
In 2016, Princeton University’s Eviction Lab Project ranked South Carolina at the top of the list in the number of evictions in the country, with an 8.9 percent eviction rate, while North Charleston had the highest rate in the state at 16.5 percent.
Stout Risius Ross, a consulting firm, reported that as of July 29, a third of South Carolina renters have little or no confidence that they would be able to pay the next month’s rent, up from 10 percent in May. It also estimates that more half of the state’s renters could be at risk for evictions in the coming months.
Berkowitz and Mark Fessler, an attorney with South Carolina Legal Services, said that their organizations are seeing a strong uptick in the number of people who are seeking help in paying their rent. Fessler said that the number of requests to his group has more than doubled in the past few weeks.
“If you can’t pay what the landlord says you owe, the law isn’t favorable to the tenant,” Fessler said.
Help is limited
Berkowitz said that other states have stayed off evictions through emergency orders. To that end, her group, along with 11 others, has asked Gov. Henry McMaster and the legislature to issue a moratorium on evictions due to the expiration of both the CARES Act moratorium and a $600 per week federal supplement to unemployment benefits.
There is some, but little, financial help for renters. Thrive, a non-profit that helps lower-income people, is working with state agency SC Housing to distribute one-time payments of up to $1,500 in rental assistance to qualifying renters. Their household must be at or below 80 percent of the area’s median income for the county where they live. The payments are made directly to landlords.
Congress, meanwhile, is considering reinstating the federal moratorium, and there’s other talk about federal rental assistance payments for those renters who aren’t in federally-backed housing.
Beyond that and help from other agencies such as the United Way, there isn’t much financial recourse for renters on the verge of losing their homes. If renters can’t pay their rent, they will be evicted, pandemic or not, and there are limits to what attorneys can do when landlords can prove that rent is due.
“When people become homeless, their health is in greater jeopardy,” Berkowitz said. “It will be harder to get reemployed and our children will suffer. Our leadership, federal, state, and local, must address this if we want to see economic and family stability.”
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw