Eviction rate climbing, local landlords say

Magistrate courts filled with rending, hard-luck stories

gmartin@islandpacket.comJanuary 16, 2012 

An arrow and a hastily scribbled "EVICTIONS" on a whiteboard pointed the way down a busy corridor to a crowded courtroom.

Inside, Magistrate Lawrence P. McElynn delivered a well-rehearsed set of introductory orders: "There will be no eye-rolling or exasperated sighs. This is not a TV show or a movie."

Maybe not, but the drama and tension unfolding each Wednesday in that courtroom at the Beaufort County government building in Bluffton, where families are often ordered from their homes for not paying rent, rivals anything from Hollywood.

The cases McElynn hears are sometimes contentious, often emotional and always of life-altering importance for those losing their homes.

And they're being filed with increasing frequency throughout Beaufort County.

SKYROCKETING EVICTIONS

One of the landlords in the courtroom Wednesday was Gil Daniel, who helps supervise about 110 properties, nearly 80 percent of which are in Beaufort County.

Trips to local courthouses have become part of his daily routine, and he jokes that he knows almost every magistrate in the county by name.

It's a familiarity fostered by what he says is a skyrocketing rate of local evictions.

"They've doubled, maybe even tripled, just in the last year," Daniel said. He added that he was involved in 16 eviction cases last week alone.

Daniel points to a host of factors contributing to the trend.

"The recession has hit this area very hard," he said. "Lots of people have lost jobs, and lots of those that haven't are working 20 hours a week instead of 40."

He said the matter is further compounded by banks' reluctance to lend money to people in need.

"Everyone says the economy's getting better," he said, before raising his hands in exasperation.

"Where?"

THE PROCESS

Eviction in South Carolina follows a process different from that in many states bcause the landlord can serve tenants who haven't paid rent with a five-day eviction notice. Elsewhere, that responsibility typically falls on law enforcement.

If the tenants haven't left after those five days, the landlord can go magistrate courts, like the one in Bluffton, by filing an "ejection action."

It's usually up to the landlords to prove tenants haven't paid. None of the landlords in court this past Wednesday had a lawyer.

If the magistrate is satisfied with their arguments, he may issue a "writ of ejectment" to be delivered to the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office. That authorizes the eviction of the tenants and their personal property. Deputies serve the notice in person within five days, at which point the tenant has 24 hours to move out.

In the Bluffton courtroom, few tenants bothered to show up to plead their cases.

It takes the court about five weeks to process the eviction filings, and in that time, many tenants simply leave rather than face the magistrate.

Those present Wednesday were rewarded when their landlords didn't show; state law requires the landlord to be there for a writ of ejectment to be issued.

'IT'S HORRIBLE'

A landlord of a Bluffton apartment complex, who requested that her name not be disclosed, said evictions are especially common in December and January.

"People spend all their money on Christmas gifts and don't have any left to pay rent," she explained, adding that she's been forced to evict more tenants this winter than in previous years.

She said those facing eviction often damage or tarnish the dwellings before moving out.

"They leave things in very bad shape," she said. "They just don't care."

Worse than the cleanup for her, she said, are the emotional repercussions of removing a family from its home.

"You feel especially bad when they have kids," she said. "These people lose their jobs and just can't pay anymore.

"It's horrible."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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