As evictions drop and SC police deal with group packages, attorneys see housing threats

NORTH CHARLESTON — After the pandemic put a moratorium on evictions and as police continue a trend toward community-focused programs, experts say one crime-fighting tool faces a national reckoning: anti-crime housing policies.

In cities across the country, police and landlords join forces to address — in different and often controversial ways — high crime rates around rental properties.

In North Charleston, for instance, the narcotics unit keeps track of properties that consistently show up in its investigations. Since mid-2018, officers have reached out to those property owners to let them know what’s going on and to demand an end to crime on their premises, Deputy Chief Scott Deckard said.

One letter, sent from a North Charleston sergeant to a real estate company in August 2018, titled the issue in simple terms: “Unceasing Illegal Activity SUBJECT TO FORFEITURE ACTION.”

Police outlined the relevant state law, claimed the house was being used for illegal drug trade and warned that if it didn’t stop immediately they’d move to seize the property. The words “loss of ownership of the property” were in bold and underlined.

A follow-up email with a smiley face included a page full of 911 call logs from February 2018 to September 2020, citing issues from follow-ups and warrant services to weapons and drug reports.

The landlord promised to solve the problem and filed eviction paperwork. In court, he testified his tenants hadn’t given him any problems and he’d like to keep them, but couldn’t risk losing his property.

The judge dismissed the case, saying there wasn’t enough proof to show that the police calls indicated crime inside the house’s four walls. The tenant’s explanation that police were given the home address when called to a nearby street corner sounded all too common to the court.

As with traffic court and criminal trials, housing courts won’t take police reports as fact unless an officer comes to testify about the findings. Since eviction proceedings generally involve the landlord and tenant, officers aren’t involved in that portion of the process. In fact, Deckard said, the department has seized just one house based on continuous criminal activity since beginning the program in 2018.

The concern is less with homeownership than community safety, Deckard said. Since some houses can become focal points of drug trafficking and violent crime even once a case is resolved or a suspect arrested, police see housing as a way to keep neighbors from continued crime.

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Judge Amy Mikell speaks to a defendant in an eviction case in the North Area 1 courtroom off Leeds Avenue in North Charleston. Some landlords have tried to evict residents due to threats of forfeiture by police. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

That’s understandable, opponents said, but can lead uninformed landlords to act out of desperation.

“They’re kind of outsourcing part of the policing work to people who aren’t trained to do it,” said Adam Protheroe, a litigation attorney with the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “It’s ostensibly to keep a place crime-free … but it can accomplish that by evicting people who aren’t choosing to be part of that problem.”

Prothero said he also worries that de facto anti-crime programs could keep victims and witnesses from reporting crime. While North Charleston focuses its efforts on drug trafficking, other programs like Greenville’s now-canceled crime-free multifamily housing program tackled crime in general by teaching landlords crime-prevention theory alongside crime-based eviction law and environmental safety design.

That program, based on the Mesa (Ariz.) Police Department’s groundbreaking 1992 program, hasn’t been developed statewide, but has siblings in a handful of other South Carolina cities.

Protheroe said Black residents are disproportionately affected by crime-free programs because police often focus crime-prevention resources on low-income and marginalized neighborhoods.

“They penalize people who’ve been accused of a crime but not convicted, or who’ve called the police for help, or who just live by a loud spot,” Protheroe said. “That may not be the intent of the ordinance, but it often does have that effect.”

North Charleston, like every other South Carolina city, has yet to find data that supports the concern. But as federal authorities focus judgment on areas with disproportionately high eviction rates among marginalized community members, Prothero hopes Palmetto State cities can find a solution that keeps everyone safe, equally.

Reach Sara Coello at 843-901-2995 and follow her on Twitter @smlcoello.

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