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Housing advocates across South Carolina worry that as the spread of the novel coronavirus continues, a cascading effect from event cancellations and a slower economy could lead to more evictions.
The problem is particularly worrying, advocates said, because in some places tenants are already being removed from their homes at a notable rate — North Charleston has the highest eviction rate of large cities in the country, according to a Princeton University analysis of 2016 data.
Columbia is eighth highest in the country on that list.
Already, a handful of communities elsewhere in the United States have paused evictions. Miami-Dade County, Fla., directed sheriff’s deputies to stop serving legal notices to vacate. Courts in Baltimore and Montgomery County, Md., have put all eviction proceedings on pause for two weeks.
Similar actions could be needed in South Carolina to shield people with hourly jobs who may have to stay home from work or have their shifts cut, and thus don’t have the money to pay rent, advocates said.
Several large events have been canceled in an attempt to stop COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, from spreading in large groups.
Cancellations include the Volvo Tennis Open and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations around the state, and the Masters Golf Tournament has been postponed. Gov. Henry McMaster also announced a state of emergency Friday, shuttering schools in two Midlands counties for two weeks.
“There’s definitely a potential concern there if people start getting furloughed or jobs are terminated, especially for hourly workers who don’t have any kind of savings or don’t have any kind of paid sick leave,” said Mark Sessler, housing unit director of the nonprofit S.C. Legal Services.
Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said the problem is particularly worrying in the Charleston area.
“With so much of it a service economy and probably everything grinding to a halt, these are folks without paid sick leave or any paid leave at all,” Berkowitz said, adding, “I’m really worried this is going to exacerbate whats already an ongoing disaster in Charleston with the housing crisis.”
There’s no indications that officials in South Carolina are moving to pause the practice.
Charleston County and Richland County had no plans to close offices as of Friday afternoon, spokespeople for those jurisdictions said. Spokesmen for Charleston and North Charleston urged that city governments could not themselves stop the eviction process.
Columbia City Council, by contrast, will consider a resolution Tuesday to urge a pause on evictions in Richland County, Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
“We’re all learning how to deal with a public health threat probably unlike what we’ve ever seen before,” Benjamin said.
Sessler and Berkowitz both said federal funding might be also key in helping the financially vulnerable fend off an eviction, though congressional leaders struggled to put together an aid package to deal with paid sick leave, food assistance and other issues Friday.
Any aid could help because in many times tenants miss rent over relatively small amounts. In 40 percent of removals across the country, the debt the tenant owed was $1,000 or less, said Alieza Durana, a spokeswoman for the Princeton Eviction Lab.
The Eviction Lab did the analysis showing eviction rates in South Carolina. Durana urged that evictions could also exacerbate public health challenges, she said, by either cramping displaced people in shelters or in the homes of friends or relatives, increasing the chances that a cluster of people could fall ill simultaneously.
As a result of the Eviction Lab’s results, Charleston County has set up a few special housing courts to serve people in the North Charleston area, said Jeff Yungman, an attorney for homeless aid nonprofit One80 Place legal services.
Preliminary results are showing that in 64 percent of cases, the tenant has been able to negotiate with their landlord to avoid eviction, Yungman said.
But despite that progress, rates could increase as the economic fallout of the new coronavirus becomes clearer.
“If people aren’t working, they’ve got no rent money to pay,” Yungman said.