As he stepped through the doors of North Area 1 Magistrate Court in North Charleston on Wednesday, Clayton Jefferson had every intention of fighting a somber and grueling uphill battle in a system stacked against him.
To his surprise, Jefferson would be the first tenant to stand before Judge Amy Mikell, presiding over the Charleston Housing Court. But Jefferson wasn't the first person in the courtroom that day, as he was met by a group of nearly a dozen attorneys and staff who were there to serve as his new legal team.
"I came here with the intention to represent myself," Jefferson said after the hearing. "I felt I had a good chance of going in there and doing it, but the attorneys were a very good help. They were great, and I didn't hear about them until I got here. I walked in and they were here waiting on me."
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Perhaps the greatest benefit of the attorneys' presence was the compensation they asked for: none. All attorneys who helped the tenants plead their cases before the judge were volunteers who asked for nothing in return, only the opportunity to help even the odds.
"If you're looking at how much it costs to file and serve an eviction, that's fairly cheap," said Nicole Paluzzi, a housing attorney with Charleston Pro Bono. "If you're a tenant, and you're against your landlord, it's much more expensive. The process is harder for tenants by design."
With attorneys Merritt Abney and Olesya Bracey by his side, Jefferson won his case against his would-be evictor, and has another chance to stay in his home. That is the aim of the new court after all, to give tenants the help needed for them to stay in their homes.
"I think the goal for everyone is, if people aren't paying rent and they can't pay rent, to prevent an eviction from ending up on their record," Abney said. "And ideally, to keep them in their homes if they have defenses, to see that they are properly asserted by people who understand the law."
Advocates hope that this first day is a sign of good things to come.
"No matter how much time we've spent working to develop the housing court model, inevitably, there will be things we can do better and more efficiently," Judge Mikell said. "We will continue to identify areas where we can improve the process and work to ensure our process is as efficient as possible for all parties involved."
Overall, the first day of the new court went smoothly aside from minor miscommunications.
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"Today we are just working out a lot of kinks," says Bracey. "First time ever — I think it'll get smoother down the road. It would help if the tenants showed up a little bit earlier, so Judge Mikell doesn't have to wait on us."
The tenants weren't late, but because they didn't know they would have legal support, most did not arrive until it was time for their hearing to start.
"It's difficult to prepare for," Abney said. "We don't get access to the clients before the morning of the hearing, so it was really just brushing up on what defenses might be available and the situations that you typically see in this kind of litigation."
Brushing up is a good phrase here, since neither attorney has experience in housing law.
"I haven't done any landlord-tenant cases at all," Bracey says. "So, this is kinda just being thrown into the deep-end. It's instantaneous, you just come in and have to handle it. The other cases we typically deal with have a very long discovery period, and they just go on for years, so it's really different."
So it may be unfamiliar territory, but both attorneys are seasoned pros and even have law students on hand to assist.
Without their guidance and support, the consequences could have been immense for those facing eviction. Fortunately for Jefferson, Wednesday's day in court ended up as more of an inconvenience than the life-altering event it could have been.
"I had to take time away from work, time to pay bills, catch up, and get ahead, and things of that nature," he said. But it could have been worse.
With North Charleston boasting the highest eviction rate in the nation, a step toward a fix may be overdue, but it is welcome.
"The eviction problem is growing nationwide, no more so than in Charleston," says Jeff Yungman, director of One80 Place Legal Services.
"In addition to displacing families, evictions affect their physical and mental health. Evictions are particularly difficult for children who often have their education interrupted as a result of a forced relocation. Individuals who are evicted face possible job loss, homelessness, having their supportive communities split apart, and less housing options in the future.
"It is in the best interest of the Charleston community at large to do whatever we can to provide legal representation for tenants in an effort to come up with solutions to ameliorate the eviction problem."
There are plans for the project to expand beyond the Area 1 Magistrate Court to North Area 3 and West Ashley courts.
The expansion is no simple feat. It took nearly a year of planning and coordination between multiple teams of legal representatives to get to that first hearing. Additional volunteer attorneys will be needed as the program expands as well.
With the program up and running, program organizers say their goals have not changed from their initial discussions a year ago.
"I am hoping to empower people to know what it is that their laws are," Paluzzi tells the City Paper, "not just landlord-tenant issues, but I want people to be informed of what their rights and sources are ... 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 housing court out of business, because they won't need an attorney for this anymore."
In the initial analysis that laid the groundwork for the program, Paluzzi identified many eviction filings with glaring legal holes, and a few that were legally sound were unnecessary.
"Honestly, a lot of the evictions that were being filed properly had minor defect issues that could be either negotiated, settled, or cured in a manner in compliance with the law and generally good for business," Paluzzi said.
After four hearings, the Housing Court saw no evictions enforced on day one.
Housing Court is planned for each Wednesday, with hopes that over time, the number of cases will begin to dwindle as tenants become aware of their rights.
Jefferson has some advice to offer those who may have been served an eviction or were struggling through one or more of the many housing woes plaguing the community.
"If you do not have the means to pay or the education necessary to handle this, make sure you find someone who does, like these attorneys, to help you."