Stacey Campbell* was apprehensive from the start. Her landlord refused to give her a lease, saying she didn’t need one because she was living month-to-month. “If it hadn’t been for my parking tickets, I probably wouldn’t have ever gotten one from him either,” Cambell says, remembering last year’s incidents.

After begging her landlord for a lease so that she could get a residential parking permit, he finally consented. “He gave me this generic lease and told me to white-out parts on it that were incorrect,” Campbell continues. She did as she was told and with parking decal safely affixed, was satisfied — for a while.

Soon the landlord started showing up unannounced at odd hours, scaring other tenants. These surprise visits became the norm. “He never kept a key to the house,” Campbell says. “He just jimmied the lock and would come in at all hours.” The elusive owner would sometimes use his Spidey skills to climb the trellis in the backyard and break in through the upstairs porch.

As disconcerting as it was, Campbell justified her property owner’s eccentricity as the price one pays for a great apartment. Then the price got higher when he demanded that the tenants pay for utilities.

Like most students on a budget,

Campbell chose the Henrietta Street location specifically because everything was included. She could

afford the all-inclusive $600 rent,

but new expenses weren’t in her limited financial plan.

Added expenses weren’t in the landlord’s plan anymore either. He alleged the roommates were wasting energy. “Which is totally not true, it’s a poorly-insulated old Charleston house,” Campbell insists. When confronted, she cited the lease as proof she didn’t need to pay extra fees. “He told me it wasn’t a lease, just a document to let me get my parking decal,” and he claimed the shoddy charter was null.

Unaware of her legal rights, Campbell assumed he was correct. Like a lot of renters, she didn’t know any better. Claiming unpaid utilities as means, the landlord eventually kicked Campbell out and kept her $600 deposit.

If it wasn’t the slogan “Life is hard, living here is easy,” that convinced her, Bishop was persuaded by the litany of perks the James Island apartment complex promised. Lake-front jogging, gourmet kitchens, minutes from the beach — the stuff of tenants’ dreams. Bishop quickly moved into the facility, thrilled until she got an unadvertised amenity: an indoor pool. Shortly after moving into the complex, large wet spots began to appear on the Charleston Law School student’s carpet.

The spots were leaks from a new sprinkler system installed by the complex just outside Bishop’s door. “We called twice to have management come take a look,” she says. Although Bishop and her roommate had paid a $950 deposit fee, maintenance refused to make repairs and charged an additional $350 for the damage.

For veteran renters, this and other scenarios are all too familiar. I’ve lived in seven Charleston apartments over five years, the highlights of which have included a burglary, a peeping tom, and, my favorite, a rodent infestation. Of course, these incidents are part of the thrill of living in a historic city known for its buildings: heavy on character, light on insulation. While the memory of a month spent holed up in a raccoon morgue may make for a terrific story now, during the heat of July, it proved a living hell. My own landlord refused to clean up the mess and left tenants to suffer the raunchy fumes of rodent decay.

Like Campbell, Bishop, and myself, 44.2 percent of Charlestonians are renters. According to the Charleston Real Estate Guide, that’s just under half of the population trying to find decent, reasonably priced housing in a safe neighborhood in a market where rental rates have increased 4.5 percent in the past year.

With a market full of students at the College of Charleston, MUSC, Charleston Law School, and a large low-income population, it’s definitely a landlord’s market.

Gentrification is often the result of rising housing costs, something Charleston is experiencing right now. “When low-cost, deteriorated neighborhoods see an influx of high-end commercial or residential development, it often leads to an increase in property values and housing costs, along with the arrival of wealthier residents,” says Michelle Mapp, program director of the Lowcountry Housing Trust. Mapp and the group work to maintain affordable housing in the Lowcountry, specifically for those most at risk of being taken advantage of by slumlords: the poor.

Slumlords and their efforts basically work in the opposite direction of gentrification. Given Charleston’s increasing turnover rate for new development in neighborhoods such as Cannonborough and Elliottborough, a wily investor could cash in.

*Names have been changed to protect tenants from negative repercussions.

It doesn’t have to be like this

Charleston School of Law Professor of Property Law William J. Cook offers words of advice:

  • Tenants generally have an exclusive right to use and occupy their dwelling. However, landlords have a right to enter the premises when reasonably necessary to make repairs or improvements provided they give prior notice In case of an emergency, landlords do not have to make prior notice.
  • A landlord,s right of access can never be used to harass a tenant.
  • Landlords have a duty to maintain their premises in compliance with all applicable building and housing codes materially affecting health and safety.
  • Tenants have an obligation to do their part to maintain the premises and to live in the dwelling in a reasonably safe and clean manner.
  • In the absence of a lease, S.C, law imposes a month-to-month tenancy based on the fair market value of the dwelling unit, so landlord and tenant are at the will of each other.
  • In the case of a dispute, claims may be brought to either magistrates [small claims] or circuit court, depending on the amount of the dispute.