Step into South Carolina’s alarming eviction crisis with expert Michelle Mapp, an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the ACLU of South Carolina. Explore the factors driving one of the highest eviction rates in the nation and learn about the consequences for vulnerable communities. We unpack innovative policy proposals, from eviction ceilings to the right to counsel, that could reshape the future of housing in the state. Discover how you can join the fight for housing justice and help create lasting change for families on the brink. Don’t miss this eye-opening conversation on a pressing issue that impacts us all.
Katy Smith: Having a place to call home is fundamental to our health, our performance at work, our children’s success in school, and so much more. Yet, far too many South Carolinians experience an eviction from their rental home or apartment. The statistics are staggering. We average 162,000 eviction filings in South Carolina each year.
42 of South Carolina’s 46 counties are in the top 100 evicted counties in the country. Your mind might go to what services we can provide those renters to help, and that is important. But today we will talk about policy changes that can help all renters in South Carolina. Interestingly, these changes can be helpful to landlords too.
I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and today I’m joined by Michelle Mapp, ACLU of South Carolina’s Equal Justice Works Law Fellow sponsored by Alston & Bird Racial Justice Fund. Michelle has deep knowledge of housing in South Carolina, having previously worked for 13 years at the South Carolina Community Loan Fund, where she served as the organization’s c e o for seven years.
Michelle will share with us background on eviction policy in our state and some promising opportunities for policy change to keep our state off the top of this undesirable list.
Michelle, thank you so much for being with us today.
Michelle Mapp: Thanks for for having me.
Katy Smith: I’m especially delighted that you are here because you really are a leader in thinking about policy around evictions in our state and in our nation, and we’re lucky to have you fill us in on policy, evictions, and what we can do to get involved. So maybe let’s just start with you defining what is an eviction.
Michelle Mapp: So an eviction happens when a landlord expels a tenant from a property he or she owns. Evictions are landlord initiated involuntary moves that happen to renters, whereas, for example, a foreclosure would be an involuntary move that happened to a homeowner when a bank or other lending agency, um, repossess a home.
So in South Carolina, as in most of the country, an eviction is a legal process that goes through the courts.
Katy Smith: Okay. Now I understand that South Carolina has far more evictions than many other states in the country, and I’m sure that’s not because we have particularly bad tenants here. Can you explain why that’s the case?
Michelle Mapp: In our state, the eviction process is heavily weighted on the side of landlords. In South Carolina it’s only $40 to file an eviction, which is the third lowest in the country. DC and Maryland are both $15, and so what the data shows is that the lower the cost to file an eviction, the more likely landlords are to use the eviction process as really a debt collection mechanism. So in other places the average cost is, you know, is a $100 to $120. And so a landlord probably thinks about it before they file lots of evictions. Whereas what we see in, um, South Carolina, you know, the rents due on the first, it’s late on the fifth, and we see thousands of evictions that are then filed on the sixth of the month.
And in a state that has a large service industry we also know that folks who are in food and beverage, oftentimes, they’re gonna make the rent, but they just may not pay it until the 10th of the month or the 11th of the month. They know this. The landlord knows this. And so what essentially happens is, is that they pay the rent late, plus late fees, plus court costs every single month. And so we have what we call serial evictions where the same tenant may have a, an eviction filed against them once, uh, you know, a month, every single month in a year.
Katy Smith: Oh my word. Okay, so let me just paint a picture here. So you’re saying I might wait tables and depending on what my hours are that week and how great my night is or my day is and what tips I get, I’m gonna make my rent, but it might not be on the schedule in my lease agreement. I get it in. I pay the late fees. Because I am late and because the fee is so low, the landlord’s gonna be like, “I’ll just file an eviction,” rather than work it out with her to get her rent in on time. And that I can have that month, after month, after month pile up on my record.
Michelle Mapp: Yeah, and we tend to see this with, um, sort of large leasing companies, larger landlords, where they’re filing these massive evictions every single month. You know, the national average is that they collect on average an additional $180 each month, um, from tenants who pay late. And unlike your credit card where you can sort of pick the day of when you’re gonna make your payment based on knowing with what your income streams are gonna be… oftentimes with leases, it’s not that everyone’s, you know, rent is due on the first of the month and is late by, you know, the fifth or the 10th. And so for folks who may not have a steady stream of income, oftentimes, you know, they make the rent, they just make the rent late, but they get caught in this eviction cycle.
Katy Smith: So on average, landlords in these large companies collect an average of $180 per tenant per month because of the eviction process and late fees?
Michelle Mapp: Exactly.
Katy Smith: Oh my gosh.
Michelle Mapp: And South Carolina is the third worst in the country in terms of what we call these serial eviction filings, meaning that the same tenant has multiple evictions filed against them throughout the course of a year. And the unfortunate problem with that is that evictions live with you forever.
So there’s currently not a process to expunge evictions or seal evictions. And so as long as you can stay in that unit, you’re fine. But should you ever have to move, you know the next landlord’s going to be able to look on the public index and they see that you’ve had all of these evictions filed against you.
And although you’ve paid, once they file and you pay and they call up and say, “we wanna dismiss the case…” what happens is it’s not removed from the system. It goes in as what’s known as civil settled. And so I, as the next landlord can go in there and say, “oh, this person has 13, you know, eviction filings. I’m not going to rent to them.”
And so we know that it disproportionately affects women with children in our state. Nationally, African-American and Latina women are evicted at much, much higher rates. South Carolina, again, is one of three states where, um, actually white women are evicted here more than any other demographic.
Katy Smith: What does a landlord do to begin the eviction process? And then what happens on the tenant’s side?
Michelle Mapp: They have to go to the courthouse to file an eviction. But again, in our state once the landlord files the eviction complaint at the courthouse, the tenant has 10 days to respond. So in other states, if an eviction is filed against you, you automatically get a court date where you can go in and explain the circumstances, or you can show up and pay the late rent.
In South Carolina, the tenant has to file a written response with the court to their eviction. And so, we know 99.7% of tenants are unrepresented by an attorney. And so what happens more often than not, they don’t understand the process. They don’t know they have this 10 day window in which they have to file. And so sometimes they may actually have the rent, sometimes they may have a, a defense to the eviction, but they don’t get to assert those defenses because the time runs out.
Katy Smith: Oh my gosh.
Michelle Mapp: I think the other important point to note, and these are all sort of public policy kinds of issues and have to do with our landlord tenant act, is that in South Carolina, a tenant can waive their right to notice in their lease. Which basically means that five years ago, I signed a lease in this apartment, and when I signed that lease, I didn’t read the fine print.
And in the fine print it said, by signing this lease, this is your notice that if you don’t pay the rent on time, you’re going to be evicted. And so what happens sometimes is that then, let’s say I put my rent payment in the slot in the landlord’s door and for some reason they didn’t get it. I’m late after a certain amount of time. They go and they file for the eviction without me having received any notice-
Katy Smith: That the check never got there or the money never got there.
Michelle Mapp: Right, right. And so then it becomes this whole process and then they said, “oh, well I found it and, or I did put it there and this is my receipt.” And so, you know, you just see lots of, um, circumstances where notice becomes an issue… that tenants aren’t notified that this process is going to happen.
So in most places around the country a tenant has to be given notice that an eviction is being filed.
Katy Smith: And as a result of these policies, we consistently are at the top of lists of states with the highest eviction rates in the country. Wow. So Michelle, what can we do about it? What are some policy changes that can be made that might have traction soon that help protect tenants and keep them in their places?
Michelle Mapp: Yeah, so there’s a number of policy interventions that we are seeing around the country. You know, one of the probably easiest ones that we could implement is having some sort of eviction ceiling and expungement process, just like we do on the criminal side that you know, you can have your records cleared, if you will. And so a process whereby after a certain period of time, either it’s automatically sealed or it’s automatically expunged or whereby a tenant can petition the court to have their eviction sealed or expunged… because we know that it’s like a, you know, it’s like a sentence for folks and it directly impacts their ability to be able to get housing. Last year I met a man who earlier in his life had had some problems with evictions, but was now earning, I think, in the mid sixties and was, um, living in an extended stay hotel because he was having challenges getting a lease.
Katy Smith: A lease, oh my gosh. I don’t see how this would happen typically, but could the landlord expunge a person’s record or like withdraw the eviction that they had turned in?
Michelle Mapp: That’s the challenge in South Carolina. So once the eviction is filed in our state, even if it’s settled, even if it’s dismissed, it still goes on the record. As I said, it shows up in our public index as civil settled, and that’s all that you know. You don’t know any of the details of what’s happened, so you know that an eviction was filed, you know that it was either dismissed or settled, but it’s still there.
I do think that landlords could choose if they wanted to, to look at someone’s record and see those and understand sort of the circumstances which a lot of people in our state live in, given our incomes and the high cost of, of rental housing, and say, “you know, oh, it’s been five years since the last time you had one of these, or it’s been 10 years since the last time you’ve had one of these, so we’re gonna go ahead and, and rent to you.”
Katy Smith: Mm-hmm. But I’m sure that in this housing market, if I have someone with no evictions, I don’t wanna take the time to figure out, you know, did you have 10 dogs in your place or were you just late one month or what was happening.
Michelle Mapp: Yeah. And especially, given all of our talk about AI and, and computer systems, if I’m applying online and it’s going into some database and it’s running a check, you know, and there’s not sort of that human interaction, it’s highly likely that there’s a list of things.
If this tenant has a past eviction on their record, then they’re gonna be denied. And as you say, if there’s some algorithm and it’s looking at who doesn’t have this and who does, the person who does is likely going to be denied.
Katy Smith: So record expungement would be one beneficial policy change to help tenants be able to stay in good, safe housing. What’s another, another change that you’re proposing that could help.
Michelle Mapp: Legal representation and so, unlike on the criminal side, where if you are charged with a crime and you cannot afford an attorney, you have a right to an attorney. On the civil side, you do not have a right to an attorney. And so what we’re seeing across the country now, three states and 15 municipalities have now implemented what’s known as Eviction Right to Counsel, Tenant Right to Counsel.
In Colorado, they call it no eviction without representation, which basically underscores the fact that this is a legal process, that it’s complicated. That you have to have an understanding of your state’s landlord tenant act, and so you would want an attorney to represent someone. You know, the example I always give is that if a mother went into, you know, the supermarket and stole some milk because she didn’t have milk to feed her baby. We as the state would provide her an attorney if she was gonna be prosecuted.
Well, if that same mother is going to lose her home because she can’t afford it, we don’t provide an attorney. And so eviction right to counsel is just that. It says that, you know, households of a certain income, if they cannot afford attorney, that one would be provided for them by the state.
We know that when an attorney is involved, the landlord is more likely to be paid and the renter is more likely to remain housed. Or avoid what we call a disruptive displacement, meaning sometimes they just don’t have the rent. They’re not gonna be able to pay the rent and they’re gonna have to leave.
But with an attorney, you can negotiate that move. You can negotiate whether it goes on, you know, the records or not. You can negotiate, um, sort of the terms of the agreement and avoid having a mother or family and their children out on the side of the road with their stuff. And so for us the goal isn’t just to say there was not an eviction.
The goal is to say a family was not put out on the street.
Katy Smith: Right. What I really like is you’re saying it’s not just about creating a balance of power. It is about coming to a, a great solution for both the landlord and the tenant. That notion that it’s beneficial to landlords too, because they’re more likely to get paid and not have the hassle of getting a new tenant in there.
It’s a win for everybody. How is that funded then in states that have that?
Michelle Mapp: Yeah, so it’s funded in different ways. Right now we have a window in our state in that we still have eviction rental assistance funds that were awarded to the state through ARPA, the American Rescue Plan. And up to 10% of those funds can be used to fund a right to counsel, program.
But another idea would be to simply increase the cost of the eviction. So right now, in the state, on the criminal side, when you are assigned an attorney you pay a $40 fee, which I think most people don’t know that happens. And so if we increase the fee from $40 to $80, that $40 would be enough to fund a right to counsel program in South Carolina and have a surplus.
Now some folks worry, well, won’t that cost simply be passed on to the tenant? But two things we know are true. That as that cost goes up, landlords file less, and so we would see a decrease in filing. But there are things that we could do in the legislation that says, you know, if the eviction did not go forward, that the tenant could not be charged the fee, that the landlord would have to pay the fee.
But that is a long-term solution of how we could fund it. We commissioned independent economic analysis um, by a national for-profit consulting firm who came in and did the research and said, “for every $1 that the state would spend on a eviction right to counsel program, we would have $3 in benefit.”
Meaning $3 that saved from homelessness, hospital visits, all the social services that go along with dealing with a population that’s been evicted.
Katy Smith: Right. I mean, eviction affects students’ outcomes in school and families’ health and I mean, like you say, on and on and on. So it’s a win for everybody if we can keep someone in their home. What else could happen policy-wise to help reduce the number of evictions?
Michelle Mapp: Another thing that is a big issue we’re seeing in our state is what we call source of income discrimination, which means that we have tools through the federal government, whether it’s a Section 8 voucher, whether it’s eviction rental assistance that families have that they can use to help with that cost burden.
And we have a number of landlords who simply refuse to rent to tenants because that’s part of their source of income. And so what we’re starting to see around the country is some folks are implementing what we’re calling source of income anti-discrimination legislation that says if I have eviction rental assistance that I’ve received through the state, as the landlord, you’re being paid… you shouldn’t –
Katy Smith: It doesn’t matter.
Michelle Mapp: be able to refuse… Yeah.
Katy Smith: And I hear that in Greenville we have 200, 250 families that have Section 8 vouchers right now, that they are going out and knocking on doors to find housing and they’re being turned down even though it’s good as money.
Michelle Mapp: Yeah. And a lot of it, as we’ve always known in the affordable housing arena, it has to do with the stigma of you know, having this Section 8 voucher, or we hear folks say, “well, the challenge of having to deal with the local housing authority.” And so I think creatively, if we could get together with folks and help understand how we can overcome some of those issues… because there is a cost to the entire community for those families that aren’t housed.
And it shows up, as you said, in the classroom. It shows up in our incarceration rates. Spend any time at the prisons in South Carolina talking to inmates and they all have a housing story. You know, we know for most children their first introduction to the legal system is either through an eviction or a divorce.
And so it has a, you know, an impact on the lives of folks. And so any things that we can do, interventions we can present that will help reduce those numbers, it’s gonna have a long-term impact on our state.
Katy Smith: That’s really helpful to know. It seems that it’s a moral argument, which certainly it is. We want people to be able to stay in their homes, but when you think about those economic ripples and on the education system and so on and so forth, it’s, it seems very logical that there’s a tremendous benefit to that small cost to make some policy reforms.
So if someone’s listening and they think, “okay, I’m excited about these policy opportunities, but what can I do?” What would you tell them?
Michelle Mapp: Well, right now we have a bill that’s pending even though we only have a few days left in this legislative session. Um, it’s house bill 3844 eviction right to counsel. It would establish an eviction right to counsel program in our state. But even if the legislative session is coming to an end, I would encourage folks to reach out to their legislators and talk about this issue.
Talk about the impact that evictions are having in your local community. Help them to understand the needs and why this is something we all need to address. They can visit our website. ACLUSC.org where we have lots of information and calls to action around the issue. And then, you know, join our mailing list if they wanna be engaged and receive additional information.
Katy Smith: Outstanding. I’ll call listeners attention too. If you want to learn more about legal services available to you if you are facing an eviction right now, we had Mark Fessler with South Carolina Legal Services on to talk about the day-to-day, what do I do right now? And so we’ll put a link to that episode in the show notes, but if you wanna change the system to see how the whole eviction process works differently, then please, please, please share this information with your friends and visit ACLUSC.org to learn how you can join the fight to change. Michelle, thank you so much for being with us today and for all that you do.
Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of the Greenville Podcast Company.
Image via Michelle Mapp.