In 2016, North Charleston experienced the highest rate of eviction (16.5 out of 100 renters) of any area in the United States. The national average was 6.53 per 100. In that same timeframe, 10.03 households per day were evicted. Low income tenants spent upwards of 70% of their monthly income on housing costs. Eviction is closely linked to homelessness. Up to 70% of tenants facing eviction have no access to legal knowledge or representation. The numbers are shocking.
These factors prompted the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission to petition the S.C. Supreme Court to form the first ever housing court in South Carolina. South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) and other local providers of legal and social services came together to seek the Commission’s support in submitting the petition to the Supreme Court in order to set up a viable experiment. On May 24, 2019, that proposal took one step closer to becoming a reality when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court issued an order approving the Commission’s proposal [MF1] and creating what is officially called the Charleston Housing Court Pilot Project (Pilot Project).
Under the Pilot Project, three Charleston County magistrates have been appointed to serve as judges of the housing court. Besides SCLS, other partners in the project include One80 Place Legal Services, Charleston Legal Access, Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services, Charleston County Magistrate Courts, the Charleston School of Law, Trident Urban League, 2-1-1 Hotline, the City of Charleston and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP.
The magistrate courts and the project partners will draw up criteria to determine who is eligible to participate in the Pilot Project. Under the Commission’s proposal, the process for connecting potential eligible tenants with attorneys is two-fold. For tenants who contact the magistrate courts to request an eviction hearing, one will be scheduled for a designated housing court day. The tenant will then call 2-1-1, which can screen the tenant for income eligibility and connect the tenant with a local legal services provider such as SCLS to meet with the tenant and determine whether representation will be provided.
For tenants who do not call 2-1-1 ahead of their scheduled hearing, One80 Place will coordinate with the Charleston School of Law and other pro bono attorneys to place someone at the relevant magistrate courts on the days designated for housing court. For tenants that desire representation, they will meet with the legal counsel and, depending on the facts of the tenant’s case, the attorney will try the case or attempt to mediate it or otherwise resolve the matter with the landlord outside of trial.
The Chief Justice’s order delineates several data points that must be kept in order to track the Pilot Project’s effectiveness. These include the
- number of tenants represented and by whom
- number of evictions filed
- number of hearings requested
- number of evictions that were settled or dismissed
- number of tenants provided financial support
- number of evictions averted by mediation, hearing, or financial support
- number of evictions with writs of ejectment issued; and
- a comparison of number of evictions filed and the number of writs of ejectment in the three pilot project Magistrate Courts with the number of evictions of the other Magistrate Courts in Charleston County.
There is no official start date for the Pilot Project, which may take time to set up. However, the May 29th order was a necessary and powerful signal that evictions in Charleston County will start getting the attention they deserve while tenants get the legal services they need.
[MF1]Can we turn this phrase into a hyperlink to the order at https://www.sccourts.org/whatsnew/displayWhatsNew.cfm?indexId=2391