Former state attorney general Henry McMaster on Monday lost his legal challenge as a landlord against Columbia’s law that bans students from creating rooming houses in the city.
In a 5-0 vote, the S.C. Supreme Court rejected McMaster’s argument that a zoning ordinance, which caps at three the number of unrelated people who may share a home inside city limits, is unconstitutional.
The decision helps other college towns in South Carolina that seek to restrict the spread of students renting homes in neighborhoods that mostly are for families, said Danny Crowe, a Columbia lawyer who represented the interest of the S.C. Municipal Association.
McMaster said Monday he considers his case “a fundamental property-rights issue.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“If the court is right and the city can use its ‘broad police powers’ to ‘control undesirable qualities’ of four female college students living in the same house, then the university area real estate market is doomed for eternity,” McMaster, who argued the case himself in mid-October, wrote in an email Monday. He said he was boarding a plane and did not respond to requests for an interview.
McMaster, through his PJM Properties, sued Columbia, arguing the ordinance violated the state Constitution’s due-process clause.
“We find it does not,” the unanimous court wrote. “The ordinance is a valid exercise of the city’s broad police power. There is a rational relationship between the city’s decision to limit the number of unrelated individuals who may live together as a single housekeeping unit and the legitimate governmental interest of controlling the undesirable qualities associated with ‘mass student congestion.’ ”
The ruling means McMaster — the state’s top prosecutor from 2003 through 2010 until he was defeated in a Republican gubernatorial primary — has lost at every level of his four-year fight over property his company owns on Gregg Street in the University Hill neighborhood near USC.
He wrote Monday that four female students still live in the house.
Crowe, who submitted legal documents to the justices on behalf of other cities, said, “The decision legitimizes the notion of protection of family-related neighborhoods. It’s good guidance for other college towns.”
Eric Budds, the municipal association’s deputy director, said most cities of any size in South Carolina have colleges and would be affected by the ruling. He did not know how many of those cities have similar zoning laws.
Budds and Crowe said the ruling does not amount to a broad ban on other unrelated people living together. They point to a footnote in the ruling in which the justices wrote that situations such as two elderly people living with two caretakers or young professionals living together “are not before us and we do not address them.”