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Posted on February 8, 2018

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By Adam Protheroe

NOTE: The names of the parties involved have been changed to protect their identity.

Vanessa Johnson is a single working mother of 4 young children.  When she came to South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS), she had been living in the Pee Dee area and receiving housing assistance through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program.  One of the kids had been having some difficulty in school.  Through her sister who lived in the Lowcountry, Ms. Johnson heard about programs in their school system that might help.  She found a job there and started the process of moving her family – and her voucher – to the Lowcountry.

She sent her landlord a 30-day termination notice, which she had the right to do because she was in a month to month lease.  Also, she contacted the housing authority about moving her voucher.  Federal law says that someone receiving a voucher has the right to move their voucher somewhere else once they have properly given their landlord a termination notice.  Instead of starting the process to move Ms. Johnson’s voucher as the law requires, the housing authority gave her a form and said the landlord had to sign it before they would allow her to move the voucher.  By signing the form, the landlord would indicate that he agreed to terminate her lease as of a specified date.  The landlord refused to sign.  He also alleged, without providing any evidence, that Ms. Johnson owed him over $1,000.00.  At the time, Ms. Johnson’s monthly income was approximately $800.00.  She denied owing landlord anything.

Based solely on her landlord’s unsubstantiated allegations, the housing authority refused to allow Ms. Johnson to move her voucher.  Not knowing where else to turn, Ms. Johnson came to SCLS for help.  Because she had already given her landlord a termination notice, and with a job on the line, she had to move to the Lowcountry without her voucher assistance.  She first moved in with her sister who was living in a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment with her 4 kids and her adult niece.  With so many people in one space, and with her sister’s landlord now threatening eviction, Ms. Johnson knew she had to find another solution.  She took her kids and moved into a transitional shelter for about 3 weeks.  However, without a housing voucher, she couldn’t afford a permanent home.  Without a permanent address, she couldn’t enroll her kids in school.  And so, the family had to go back to the Pee Dee and move in with her mother.

When Ms. Johnson first came to SCLS, we demanded that the housing authority either allow her to move the voucher, or grant her a grievance hearing within 14 days.  The housing authority was effectively depriving Ms. Johnson of an opportunity to confront her landlord on his allegations.  After they didn’t respond, SCLS filed suit in federal court alleging that the housing authority violated Ms. Johnson’s right to due process. We asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction requiring the housing authority to allow Ms. Johnson to move her voucher.  This motion was granted and she was eventually able to rent a home in the Midlands with her voucher where she and her kids live today

During the time Ms. Johnson was unable to use her voucher, she moved 5 times.  Her kids had to change schools 3 times.  While this wasn’t a case involving substantial damages when it started, the fact that the housing authority dug their heels in and refused to allow Ms. Johnson to move with her voucher until the court ordered it, caused her and her family serious hardship.  SCLS does not collect attorney’s fees from clients, and does not sue for damages other than actual damages.  However, because of the hardship and trauma endured by Ms. Johnson and her children, her SCLS attorney negotiated with the housing authority a settlement of $50,000.00 for her.  SCLS did not accept any portion of the settlement proceeds as attorney’s fees.  Ms. Johnson plans to put a substantial down-payment on a house so she can enjoy the security of home ownership and allow her voucher assistance to go to someone else who needs it more.

The policy at issue in this case – requiring a landlord to sign off before a voucher recipient is allowed to move their voucher – is not uncommon in South Carolina and around the US.  In fact, it seems to have become more common in the last several years.  This case appears to be the first reported decision directly on point.  Housing advocates from numerous states have expressed interest in the case and asked for briefs and pleadings on it.  This decision will hopefully be useful in convincing housing authorities with similar policies to make changes without litigation.  However, if litigation is necessary, this decision should serve as an important piece of persuasive authority in SC and potentially elsewhere.

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