Organizers for Charleston County's new Housing Court Pilot Project are already envisioning the day when local renters facing eviction won't need their help as they finalize preparation for their first day in court next week.
Last year, South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) and other local providers of legal and social services came together to begin to combat eviction rates in North Charleston that not only topped national figures, but dwarfed the next-highest cities.
“As a group, we started brainstorming ideas and looking at other housing court models in and out of the state and what their particular areas of concern were,” said Nicole Paluzzi, a housing attorney with Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services. “Largely, we’ve just been trying to do this slow and deliberate, hoping that will make us more likely to succeed.”
In 2016, Princeton University's Eviction Lab project found that 16.5 percent of renters faced eviction in North Charleston, the highest rate in the nation among similar-sized cities. The second-highest city, Richmond, Va., was 30 percent lower. Recent reports show Charleston-area communities continue to face housing-related issues as the cost of living rises and wages remain stagnant.
The attorneys' hopes are close to coming to fruition, as the Housing Court holds its first hearing next Wed. Oct. 2 — a little more than a year since planning first started.
This success will look like more than giving some tenants a taste of victory and control over their housing situation, though. Paluzzi says that the purpose of this Housing Court is more about education than it is about legal counsel.
"We look at it as — if you can get a population informed about what their rights and obligations are and how to achieve those goals, that’s ultimately going to put the
Housing Court out of business," she says. "Because they wont need an attorney for this anymore."
According to Paluzzi, a large number of evictions that contribute to Charleston’s high number are done without proper legal procedure or in a very informal manner. In addition, many tenants are not even aware of what their options are when it comes to fighting evictions, or even that they can be fought in the first place.
Paluzzi believes that empowering the community in this way is the first step in her long-term goal for this line of legal statutes.
"We are hoping that with enough knowledge about the process, ultimately, the need for a designated Housing Court will go away, and it can just be a housing docket," she says. "At least, that’s my goal."
The first Housing Court session will take place from 8:30 a.m. until noon at the North Area 1 Magistrate Court located at 4045 Bridge View Drive in North Charleston.