FLORENCE COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) – South Carolina’s low eviction filing fee has created an intense power imbalance between renters and landlords, according to housing advocates and organizations. 

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“Our eviction process in South Carolina is really cheap,” said Adam Protheroe, a litigation attorney for the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “I can’t say we’re the cheapest in the nation. We are pretty close.”

It costs landlords $40 to file to evict a tenant. That low fee, Protheroe said, means the process isn’t being used for what it’s intended for. Instead of being used to remove someone from a property, it’s being used as way to collect rent – leading to serial filings against the same tenants. 

Those court records are public, easily accessible and permanent, which can limit a renter’s future housing options – even if they were never actually evicted. 

South Carolina had the highest eviction rate in the nation in 2016, at 19% of renters, according to Marketplace. That rose to 25.7% in 2019. 

Numbers on evictions can be hard to find, since most states don’t track the data, according to Eviction Lab, an organization that collects eviction statistics. 

The data that Eviction Lab has for South Carolina shows vast differences in eviction filing rates across the state. In 2016 – the most recent statistics available – eviction filing rates ranged drastically by county. 

Statewide, there are 112 evictions a day, an eviction court filing rate of 18.7% and an eviction rate of 8.87%. The poverty rate is 13.49%, and the average South Carolinian spends 31.1% of their income on rent.

In Anderson, Lexington, Florence, Berkeley, Horry, Charleston and Richland counties, more than six people are evicted a day on average. Eviction data was not available for eight counties.

Eviction filings were above 20% in Laurens, Berkeley, Greenwood, Richland, Marion, Dorchester, Cherokee and Florence county. In Florence County, 39.06% of rents face an eviction filing each year – the highest rate in the state.

More than one out of every 10 tenants was evicted from their residence in 12 counties. The highest rate was in Cherokee County, where 16.41% of renters were evicted.

However, the areas with the highest poverty rates don’t have the highest eviction rates.

The poorest county with eviction data available, Marlboro County, has a poverty rate of 24.34% and a rent burden of 31.9%, but ranks in about the middle for its eviction filing and eviction rate. The same goes for Williamsburg and Chester counties. 

Eviction Lab has also found that Black renters were more likely to have an eviction filing against them and be evicted.

A handful of buildings are responsible for the bulk of the state’s eviction cases. One Greenville complex made 347 eviction filings in court between March 15, 2020, and December 2021. Another in the area made 284 filings. 

Eviction Lab gave South Carolina a 2.3 out of five for its COVID-19 eviction policies, noting that while there were almost no eviction filings during the temporary eviction moratorium in 2020, tenants could still be evicted unless they proved they were unable to pay rent due to financial hardship. And while landlords weren’t able to remove those people from the properties, they were still able to charge late fees and were able to raise rent when renewing leases. 

Overall, Eviction Lab states that South Carolina’s laws “are well outside the norm when it comes to landlord-tenant relations.”

There’s a spike in eviction filings around the 10th of every month, according to Protheroe. In 2019, there were 68 cases filed in March in Horry County. In 2021, that was 29, and it returned to 52 this year. 

Protheroe said housing advocates were concerned about a possible spike when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium ended. 

“That really hasn’t happened,” he said. “It has been more of a slow swell, it seems like, but filings are maybe only part of the story.”

When a case is filed in court doesn’t always reflect when a renter is actually evicted. Protheroe said most eviction filings end up being settled, which means that a tenant moved out or paid rent and is allowed to stay. But with out-of-court settlements, it’s hard to tell what an increase in filing really means.

Landlords can file to evict a tenant for three reasons – not paying rent, violating their lease or if the lease has ended, the landlord hasn’t extended it and the tenant hasn’t left. 

Landlords are legally required to tell the tenant that they have five days to fix the problem before they file for eviction. Most of the cases Protheroe won for tenants when he worked in legal services were because a landlord hadn’t given proper notice before filing to evict.

But tenants who end up paying their rent can still be evicted, he warns, unless the landlord drops the case. 

“The problem is if the tenant is behind, by the time the landlord files, legally, it doesn’t matter if the tenant gets caught up after, the landlord still has the right to evict,” Protheroe said.

He warns renters to make sure that case is dismissed, and not to ignore it and assume that it was.

Withholding rent due to repairs can be tricky. 

“That is pretty much always a bad idea,” he said.

The reason is that it’s hard to have a legal defense about how much should be withheld. If possible, he recommends talking to a lawyer.

“Eviction cases move fast, they move super fast, and trying to raise the repair issues to prove the damages is really difficult,” he said. “Once those wheels start turning, they are really hard to slow down.”

If a tenant doesn’t pay the rent by their deadline, a landlord has to give a tenant a five-day notice to do so. The notice isn’t required if a lease has in writing that no written notice will be given if rent is late.

Assuming the renter fights the eviction, the entire process takes only weeks. 

If a renter requests one, a court hearing is held within 10 days of the filing. If the renter loses their case in court, then the court will issue a writ of ejectment that gives the tenant five days to move.

Nowhere else in the court system do things move that quickly, he said, and so cheaply, creating an extreme power imbalance between landlords and renters. 

Legislative change at the state level is unlikely.

“[Bills] tend to not get a lot of traction,” Protheroe said. “There is not a lot of support at the statehouse for those types of reforms.”

The situation isn’t getting any better. Information from the Pee Dee Realtor Association shows that despite more homes being put up for sale in the Florence area, the median price of a home increased by 17% from 2021 to 2022, leading to half of homes for sale being priced at more than $214,000. That was $156,000 in February 2019.

Additionally, 2021 data from the SC Housing Needs Assessment shows that 31% of households are considered to be in shelter poverty, and that a basic two-bedroom apartment is not considered affordable in 40 of the state’s 46 counties. 

From 2000 to 2019, the median household income went up by 51.6% in the state, while the median rent went up by 80.8%. The median cost of a single-family home increased by 89.5% statewide during that same time. 

The “housing wage” is $17.30, according to the data, but most South Carolinians make $13.52 an hour. Among the 30 most-common jobs in the state, 20 have an hourly wage that is below that mark. To afford a one-bedroom apartment, a South Carolinian would have to make $14.83.

There’s always going to be less affordable housing than what’s needed, according to Chris Winston, the chief communications officer for SC Housing, an organization that provides emergency assistance to prevent homelessness and is involved in efforts to increase the amount of safe, decent and affordable housing in the state. 

There were 15,000 people who used its programs between April 2020 and April 2021 in Horry County. The SC Stay Plus program, which provided pandemic assistance, helped more than 20,000 people in the state.

A portion of the population is still struggling to pay rent due to the pandemic, Winston said, and for those who were already struggling to make rent, even a small economic backslide can cause large impacts that are hard to recover from.

He said builders want a return on their investments, which leads to the creation of “luxury” apartments that feature hardwood floors and vaulted ceilings. With the costs of lumber and other supplies increasing, it’s even more difficult to incentivize developers to create affordable housing. 

Those projects often face resistance from existing residents, who have a “not in my backyard” mindset that’s due to misconceptions, Winston said. 

“When people hear ‘affordable housing,’ they have a picture that comes to mind of what that is going to mean, and our position is that that’s an inaccurate picture, and we need to tell a better job of what those developments are and who live there,” he said, noting that residents in those projects include single mothers and the elderly.

Traffic is also often cited as a reason for opposing the developments. But when areas are matched well to place affordable housing next to jobs, he said, it doesn’t lead to more congestion.

“We want to build this housing where people will live and work in the same community,” Winston said. 

Use the database below to search for eviction numbers by county.