When Alfred Davis bought his house in Old Shandon in the summer of 1965, he expected it to be a place where he and his wife, Ernestine, could grow old together.
Fifty years later, they are still there on the 2400 block of Lee Street. But the neighborhood around Alfred, 81, and Ernestine, 80, is no longer the place of comfort and tranquility they hoped to enjoy in their twilight years.
Many of the families around them have moved away, replaced almost entirely by short-term renters who have brought with them parties, noise, trash and overcrowding, the Davises said.
Now, the Davises pray each summer will bring new tenants who are more apt than the last to keep their properties tidy and their stereos turned down.
“We weren’t expecting the neighborhood to go bad when we got here,” Alfred Davis said. “We expected it to be an everlasting place. We didn’t expect it to fall apart.”
The Davises are hardly the city’s only residents concerned about the renters who have moved into traditional single-family neighborhoods as homeowners have left. At the core of the problem, some residents across the city have complained, are landlords who either can’t be reached – some live outside the Midlands or even the state – or can’t be bothered with hearing complaints about their tenants or properties.
We weren’t expecting the neighborhood to go bad when we got here. We expected it to be an everlasting place. We didn’t expect it to fall apart.
Alfred Davis, Old Shandon resident
In many cases, there’s not much the city can do to hold tenants and landlords accountable for appropriately coexisting with their neighbors. The city’s existing ordinances don’t provide the means for quickly cracking down on problem landlords or encouraging them to evict misbehaving tenants.
Neighborhood leaders say the problems are getting worse. And the number of renters in the city is increasing. City staffers have recognized the problem and several months ago began drafting a package of changes to Columbia’s ordinances meant to bolster the city’s ability to respond to residents’ complaints.
The proposed changes, expected to be introduced during a City Council work session Oct. 20, include requiring that landlords register each rental property with the city and creating a more streamlined process for dealing with nuisances.
“We’re just trying to promote people being good neighbors,” Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson said. “If you are going to come to Columbia and have made this your home – whether it’s for four years while you’re in school, or we would hope that you would stay – we want you to be welcome here. But you’ve also got to be a good citizen to those around you as well while you’re here.”
What homeowners want
The proposed changes virtually mirror a list of suggested improvements brought to the city by leaders of about 20 neighborhood concerned about how the proliferation of rental properties is affecting the character of the city’s neighborhoods.
Kit Smith, a Wales Garden resident and leader of the neighborhoods’ group, said that while not all – or even most – tenants and landlords are problematic, it’s time for the city to do something about the growing number of renters before it’s too late.
It’s killing our neighborhoods.
Kit Smith, Wales Garden resident
“You’ve got a ... single-family residential area, and you bring in tenants who are not compatible with that lifestyle. So what do you do?” said Smith, a former member of Richland County Council. “This is where the city really needs to get more visionary. It’s killing our neighborhoods.”
According to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of the households in Columbia are renter-occupied, and that proportion has been growing for several years.
Nationally and locally, the proportion of renter households has grown over the past decade, according to the Census Bureau, in part because the Great Recession caused some people to lose their homes and prompted young people in droves to defer buying homes. And, increasingly, as the economy has picked up, people who have moved for a new job have had to rent their old home – from off Two Notch Road, to Eau Claire to Shandon – when they found they couldn’t sell it.
Meanwhile, the University of South Carolina has increased its student body to the point where it can house only freshmen and a small portion of non-freshmen on campus. USC ranked fourth in the nation on a recent Washington Post study of growth among the states’ 50 flagship universities. Between 2000 and 2013, USC’s undergraduate population grew 58 percent, the study found.
Students live in apartment complexes, which has driven the recent boom in “student dorms.” But they also live in rental houses in neighborhoods.
Neighborhood leaders and city staff say USC representatives have been supportive of their efforts to improve relations between renters and the neighborhoods.
If you are going to come to Columbia and have made this your home ... we want you to be welcome here, but you’ve also got to be a good citizen to those around you as well while you’re here.
Teresa Wilson, Columbia city manager
Renters have transformed the Martin Luther King neighborhood, which sits just east of Five Points in downtown Columbia, located conveniently near USC, Benedict College and Allen University.
Durham Carter, president of the Martin Luther King neighborhood association, said his neighborhood is becoming a haven for student renters who throw raucous parties and drive too fast down streets where some older residents still live.
Earlier this month, one house near Carter was the site of a party featuring a backyard slip-n-slide, he said. Roughly 100 people poured into the neighborhood wearing beach attire, with neighbors complaining that some were drinking and urinating in the house’s front yard, Carter said.
“They can’t do that at the university, and they can’t do that at those student housing developments, so they come here to do what they want,” Carter said.
Ellen Cooper, who heads the Coalition of Downtown Neighborhoods, said some renters in her Cottontown neighborhood treat their front porches and backyards like trash dumps and don’t maintain their yards.
Bob Guild, president of the Granby neighborhood association, said it’s common to see cars parked on certain front lawns in his neighborhood and that he sometimes has to pick beer bottles and cans out of the woods.
Residents in the Hyatt Park-Keenan Terrace neighborhood in north Columbia have their own concerns about code enforcement. One property on the 4300 block of Palmetto Avenue has been especially problematic.
Michael Hill, the neighborhood association president for Hyatt Park-Keenan Terrace, said there have been two separate drive-by shootings at the property, but that getting the landlord to evict the tenant has been difficult.
“It’s very easy for landlords to drag their feet in dealing with tenants,” Hill told the crowd at a recent neighborhood meeting. “There are tools the city can use, but it is a long road.”
City staff is looking to make that road shorter with the new package of landlord and nuisance ordinance changes. Two proposed changes would require property owners to get a permit for their rental properties and would create a demerit system for every rental property in the city.
As it is, the city can track incidents and complaint calls for specific properties, but repeat offenses don’t come with harsher penalties.
Under the proposed ordinance changes, when codes enforcement officers respond to repeated problems at a specific property, the demerits will pile up. After too many offenses in a certain period of time, landlords could face fines and losing their rental permits. That would also go for commercial establishments, such as bars, which could risk losing their business licenses.
Transgressions that would warrant demerits could include overgrown lawns; criminal offenses, such as underage drinking; and violations of the city’s occupancy rule. No more than three unrelated adults are allowed to live in a single-family residence in Columbia, an ordinance upheld by the S.C. Supreme Court in 2011.
Anyone renting out residential property in the city would be required to register their properties, likely at a fee to be determined by City Council. And any landlords who live outside a particular radius of the city would be required to register a local contact to add a layer of accountability.
Since last summer, the Columbia Police Department has overseen the city codes enforcement.
“(Absentee landlords are) one of the biggest issues we have,” said David Hatcher, a housing official who works with the Columbia Police Department to enforce city codes. “A lot of these (problem) houses are occupied by tenants, and it’s a landlord who ... will put the bare minimum into the property. They’re collecting rent, but hardly putting any money back into the property – and they don’t care.”
The demerit system would give landlords an incentive not only to take care of their properties’ upkeep, Hatcher said, but also to hold their tenants responsible for bad behavior.
That goal should sit well with many neighborhood residents – but it might rankle some landlords.
Holding a landlord responsible for a tenant’s behavior, University Hill landlord Raj Aluri suggested, is like catching a person for drunk driving and then punishing the person who owns the car being driven.
Aluri is both a landlord and a resident in the University Hill neighborhood, situated between the USC campus and Five Points. The neighborhood’s convenient location and preponderance of multiunit residences make it a popular area for student renters.
You need to make sure the landlords are doing their jobs. At the same time, you really cannot go overboard punishing those landlords who want to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.
Raj Aluri, University Hill resident and landlord
Having lived in University Hill with his wife and children for some 25 years himself, Aluri rents to more than 100 tenants in the neighborhood, most of them students, he said, accounting for a significant share of the neighborhood’s rental properties.
Aluri said he is attentive to the maintenance and upkeep of his houses. But, he said, he cannot be held accountable for babysitting his tenants at all times.
“(My tenants are) informed what’s to be done and what’s not to be done,” Aluri said. He outlines his expectations and rules, which include specific city ordinances, in his tenants’ leases. He also requires student renters to cosign with a parent. “I think the residents and the tenants need to take some responsibility. It cannot be wholly the responsibility of the landlord. Even though I live (here) ... I cannot control them 24/7.”
“I think there needs to be a good balance in all this,” Aluri said. “You need to make sure the landlords are doing their jobs. At the same time, you really cannot go overboard punishing those landlords who want to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.”
Kathryn Fenner, vice president of the University Hill neighborhood association, said she supports changing the city’s ordinances because it would “raise the level of what’s acceptable” in neighborhoods.
“This isn’t going to be rainbows and unicorns. This is going to be baseline stuff, like having your grass mowed,” Fenner said.
Cooper, who lives in Cottontown, said simply having landlords registered and being able to contact them would be a big step forward.
“Sometimes if you can just talk to the owner of the property and let him know what really is going on, that solves the problem,” she said.
The bottom line, though, said Smith, “is something needs to be done.”
“The city’s just going to have to decide whether protecting the quality of life of the neighborhoods is important enough to do something like this,” Smith said.
Staff writer Andy Shain contributed. Reach Wilks at (803) 771-8362. Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING
Students aren’t the only renters who might cause problems. But when they are present in large numbers in cities, they can add to what’s already going on. Here’s a sampling of landlord ordinances in several other cities that have large student populations.
▪ $100 annual fee to register and acquire a rental permit
▪ Annual inspections required
▪ Must have contact agent located within 75 miles of the city
▪ Violations of state, federal and local ordinances can be grounds for revocation of a property’s rental housing permit if a certain number of offenses occur in a certain amount of time.
▪ $204.75 annual fee to register and acquire a rental permit
▪ Must have contact agent within the county
▪ Must maintain a tenant list to be made available to the city upon reasonable notice
▪ Violations of state, federal and local ordinances can be grounds for revocation of a property’s rental housing permit if a certain number of offenses occur within a specified period amount of time.
▪ City keeps public-access online database of registered rental properties and points against the properties
▪ Annual fees ranging from $15 to $50 depending on number of residential units to register and acquire a rental permit
▪ Must have contact agent located within 25 miles of the city
▪ Must maintain a tenant list to be made available to city, police, fire and emergency personnel upon request
▪ Landlords can avoid punishment for offenses at a property by evicting problem tenants.
▪ City keeps public-access online database of registered rental properties.