A moving day in an SC deportation court during COVID

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Lisa Belton has her arm in a sling as she packs up her house on Thursday, October 28, 2021.

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Sporting a set of blue scrubs, Tonez Wilson was fidgeting in his seat waiting for his name to be called out. The 23-year-old was due to finish his nursing program within a week and should have been in class that morning. Instead, he was at Richland County Central Court in Dentsville, fighting not to be evicted from his apartment.

Over the past two months, he had accumulated $ 1,417.80 in past due rents. Now, after four years of renting with the same company, the owner wanted him to leave.

Wilson is one of ten tenants who passed through trial judge Phillip F. Newsom’s courtroom on Wednesday, October 27, and one of countless others nationwide who are at risk of losing their homes.

Tenants who struggled at the start of the pandemic have been temporarily protected from eviction by a federal moratorium. These protections expired in August, but many are still struggling to get back on their feet.

Even before COVID-19, South Carolina had the highest deportation rate of any state in the country, according to a study by the Deportation Lab at Princeton University.

Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the SC Appleseed Justice Center, said that despite the far-reaching consequences of evictions, it was one of the state’s most overlooked issues.

“A lack of stable affordable housing in South Carolina, along with laws that facilitate evictions, has led to a crisis. And there’s no reason to think things won’t be so bad or worse with this pandemic. ”

Under South Carolina Law, landlords can evict a tenant if they don’t pay rent within five days of the due date or if they violate the terms of their lease. This includes staying beyond the lease end date.

The owners many of whom spent months waiting to collect rent because of the moratorium say that filing a deportation application is often the only tool they have to help recoup their losses.

The state spent a day in Magistrates’ Court observing eviction hearings and questioning tenants to put a face to the issue lawyers have long warned against.

Some of those threatened with eviction had not paid their rent because they had lost their jobs, had their wages cut or were facing a medical emergency. Others simply misunderstood the terms of their lease.

Eight of the tenants were people of color. One was not fluent in English and needed a translator. None of them had a lawyer. They all hoped to stay home, or at least buy some time before they had to leave.

The information in this story comes both from testimony in court and from interviews with the state.

Twelve days to make two months’ rent

The reason Wilson started nursing school was to earn more money. But eventually balancing school and work became untenable, and he was fired from his carrier job at Prisma Health due to scheduling conflicts.

Although he works part-time in a retirement home on weekends, this job does not pay enough to cover his rent, so he failed in August and September. He asked for help under the Richland County Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but was still awaiting a response when he found an eviction notice stuck on his door a few weeks ago .

“I guess I was expecting it a bit, but I wasn’t expecting it so soon,” he said.

When asked by Justice Newsom how he planned to find the $ 1,480.70, Wilson assured him that he had been accepted into the program, that his rent assistance check was on the way and that he had a promising employment after graduation.

“We try to help our tenants when we can,” said owner Will Fowler.

The judge gave Wilson twelve days to repay the debt.

Wilson was grateful for the second chance, but knew there was no guarantee that the rent assistance would arrive on time. Without this check, he would have no choice but to move.

But Wilson was trying not to focus on it. Instead, her mind was on her graduation. If all goes according to plan, he will graduate as a practical nurse from ECPI University. From there, he hopes to earn an associate’s degree and become a registered nurse.

“At this point all I can do is wait,” he said.

Bad timing

“You can lift your left hand since you clearly cannot lift your right. Judge Newsom told Lisa Belton.

When she appeared before him on Wednesday, she was recovering from a recent operation and had her right arm in a sling. The over $ 3,000 she paid in medical bills caused her to delay rent in September.

Belton and his owner, Cornie J. Davis, had a strained relationship. She told the judge that he had skimped on the necessary repairs. He claimed that she never got the rent on time.

Still, whenever she’s been late in the past, she said he was usually lenient as long as she paid a penalty. This time it was different.

“I’m sick of this,” Davis told the judge. “I try to be nice but every time I’m nice people step on me.”

Belton and her husband had been looking for a new place to live for a year, but they arrived empty-handed. Now they should scramble at the last minute to find something.

“It sounds like bad luck, bad timing,” she said. As she watched her friends and family struggle to get through 2020, she was able to keep her job and put up with it. “Now, after all of this, things are falling apart just as we were getting ready to leave.”

The judge gave her until November 3 to move out. Now she said she has to figure out how to tidy up her whole house with one arm.

No more moratorium

Eight months. It’s been how long Lisa Holmes hasn’t paid her rent in full.

The problem started in February when she moved from a sales position at her company to another job. The money she earned from commissions usually helped her overcome the bump each month.

Running out of money, she tried to find ways to cut spending, but found that no matter how many pennies she made, she wasn’t going to earn rent.

Then she stumbled upon what she believed to be her saving grace: the Center for Disease Control’s moratorium on evictions.

“I just signed this form and submitted it to my landlord and he ended all evictions.” she said.

She hoped the moratorium would give her time to resume her old sales job. But over the months nothing changed at work and the bills kept piling up. In April, she was fired for taking too many sick days.

Then, in August, the moment she dreaded finally arrived. The United States Supreme Court has permanently overturned the moratorium on evictions. Within months, she received the eviction notice she thought she could avoid. At this point, she owed more than $ 8,300.

The judge explained that she had until November 3 to pay off her debt and until November 5 to pay $ 1,200 for that month’s rent.

Although she applied for the Richland County Emergency Rental Assistance Program in August, she is still waiting to be approved.

Holmes said she knew she wouldn’t have the money on time, but she hopes that if she can at least show her landlord a letter of approval from the rent assistance program, he will agree to work. with her.

“COVID was stressful enough like that already, but it only added a whole other layer,” she said

Forced with nowhere to go

When Heather Griffith received the notice that her lease would not be renewed and that she had until the end of the month to leave, she couldn’t believe it.

She and her 14 year old son had lived in the same mobile home park for 9 years. At $ 400 a month, it was the only two bedroom she could afford.

Although she has already been threatened with eviction several times for lack of rent, “we have always managed to find a solution,” she said. “We’ve never even been to court before. ”

She was sure it would be the same this time. But as the audience got closer, reality started to sink.

When she finally appeared before the judge, Griffith didn’t know what to expect.

“Can you tell me why you haven’t moved when your lease is up?” ” He asked.

Griffith told her she had nowhere to go and thought she could challenge the decision in court. Her voice began to fade as she fought back tears.

“Unfortunately, the law does not allow you to do this. Judge Newsom said, noting that her owner could in fact sue her for damages. “I have to issue the writ, I have no choice.”

He gave her until November 3 to move out.

Heather wasn’t sentimental about leaving the mobile home park. She had dreamed of getting out of there for years. But with poor credit and an eviction on her record, she knew finding new housing in a week would be next to impossible.

“I just feel like a failure,” she said.

Editor’s Note: The state has contacted Richland County to inquire about Wilson and Holmes’ requests for rent assistance. A spokesperson said the county couldn’t discuss individual cases, but it typically takes four to six weeks for an application to be approved, and an additional 21 business days for payment to be made. The county said other factors can cause approval or payment delays.

Rebecca Liebson covers housing and livability for the state. She is also a member of the Report for America Corps. Rebecca joined The State in 2020. She graduated from Stony Brook University in 2019 and has written for the New York Times, New York Post and NBC. His work has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Hearst Foundation and the Press Club of Long Island.
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