Photo by Chris Robert on Unsplash

The law of supply and demand is wreaking havoc in Charleston’s residential rental market. There are not enough affordable rentals for people looking to live near downtown.

Meadows

“We have a crisis as it relates to affordability and availability,” said Otha Meadows, CEO of the nonprofit Charleston Area Urban League. “[The Urban League has] a very robust fair housing program so that we can make sure that those people who are dealing with issues related to housing have the equal and fair opportunity to access affordable and decent and safe housing. That’s what we’ve been doing since 2010.”

Charlestonians may soon see a scannable QR code on the back of CARTA buses that will link to the Urban League’s fair housing resources in Charleston as part of a recent education campaign in collaboration with the city of Charleston’s Department of Housing and Community Development. The term “housing” envelopes the entire landscape of renters and homebuyers. 

Charleston Pro Bono attorney Cody Tettemer (left) and executive director Alissa Lietzow offer representation and resources to renters | Photo by Ashley Rose Stanol

In addition to the Urban League, the city has partnered with Charleston Pro Bono Services to provide renters protection resources, said Geona Shaw Johnson, director of the Housing and Community Development department. 

Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services addresses challenges renters face in the market, such as affordability. It also has been vital in helping people to understand responsibilities when facing evictions as well as how to respond to disputes while remaining compliant to lease agreements, Johnson said. 

Rent and income comparisons

“In the market, which naturally the city of Charleston does not control, we’ve seen rent increases at a higher level than in the past,” Johnson said.

Rent is determined by a number of factors such as the value of the rental property. Landlords also set rents based on amenities, location and rental unit competition.

The U.S. Census Bureau cited in 2021 that Charleston County’s population size was comparable to Richland County, which includes Columbia. The average rent in Charleston County increased 19.6% since 2019 and is currently $1,586, according to The Washington Post. The average rent in Richland County increased 12.5% since 2019 and is currently $1,224. 

Charleston’s affordable housing eligibility is determined by the area median income, which is currently $91,800 for 2022-2023 compared to last year’s $82,000, Johnson said. The city’s median income is significantly higher than the county’s, which is $67,182, according to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau. In comparison, Richland County’s median household income as of 2020 is $54,441. 

Legal resources for renters

Charleston Pro Bono assists tenants in two main ways: Free civil legal aid and the housing court program the company works with in Charleston County, said CPBLS executive director Alissa Lietzow. The organization opened about 1,100 cases last year to help about 2,500 people in the Charleston area, she said. 

“Once we determine eligibility, which is based upon household income and residency, we were able to meet with a tenant to figure out what they have going on,” Lietzow said. “[Tenants] meet with the staff attorney [Cody Tettemer] to talk about their situation and see what standing legal issues they have and how we can help them and also steer them to what resources might be available.”

Charleston Pro Bono has been operating since 2005 and has coordinated with the Charleston County Housing Court program since 2019, Lietzow said. The program operates in three magistrate courts in North Charleston, one in West Ashley and one downtown. 

“The program was established so that unrepresented tenants who showed up for their eviction hearing could receive free representation,” Lietzow said. 

Key benefits for renters working with Charleston Pro Bono are the possible dismissal of wrongful evictions and access to resources to help during an eviction. 

“Reaching a dismissal” means the tenant won’t have an eviction on their record and face future preclusion from obtaining housing. 

Lietzow said her nonprofit works with a landlord or property manager to come up with a settlement whether that be a payment plan, application for rental assistance or even an agreed-upon move out date for the dismissal of the actual eviction. 

Although access to legal resources is an advantage for renters in Charleston, the demand for rental units continues to grow while the supply of funding assistance remains static.  

“We especially have been dealing with increasing rent rates in Charleston because we’re dealing with a limited amount of space and an increasing population of people that want to live here,” Tettemer said. “And as far as rental assistance, we have a large number of organizations that we collaborate with and work with to give people rental assistance [such as] getting them caught up on rent or helping them cover their security deposit for a new unit.”

Lietzow added, “Demand is going to exceed the available dollars. So even as blessed as our community may be to have these rental assistance available, there’s still more people in need than available dollars to fund it.”

Mediation and discrimination

Charleston Area Urban League is a Fair Housing Agency certified by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Urban League helps 75-100 parties with landlord-tenant mediation on an annual basis and also accompanies tenants to court when an eviction is issued. 

“We do a lot around landlord tenant mediation,” Meadows said. “It takes a lot of angst out of the relationship between the landlord and the tenant.”

Besides mediation, Urban League intakes complaints of potential fair housing infractions and files those with the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission. Complaints can include everything from discrimination based on race, fair lending or lack of accommodations for people with disabilities. If someone can’t afford to pay the rent, Urban League will provide financial counseling to help with money management and look at available resources in a more specific and positive way. 

“We have in South Carolina what is called the [Residential] Landlord and Tenant Act,” Meadows said. “The problem is that a lot of landlords don’t know what is in [it] — and tenants don’t know their rights or responsibilities either. We’re about education and outreach and informing the broader community. We work on both sides of the fence. There are rights that landlords have and there are rights that tenants have.” 

If have a dispute with your landlord or you feel that you are a victim of housing discrimination, please call the Urban League hotline (843) 300-5246.


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