BY COREY HUTCHINS
UPDATE: Judge Strikes Down McMaster’s Rental Property Appeal
After eight years of a quirky Republican governor who has been criticized for being irresponsible in both his private behavior and his management of state government, Henry McMaster says he is running to restore responsibility to the Palmetto State’s governor’s office.
But while many things are known about McMaster — he’s held some kind of office in the Republican galaxy here for decades — not much has been explored when it comes to his management of the dozen rental properties he’s been handling with his wife for several years in the leafy college neighborhood surrounding the University of South Carolina.
The current state attorney general and former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, McMaster will face off in the GOP primary elections June 8. He battles Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, Lexington state Rep. Nikki Haley and Upstate Congressman Gresham Barrett for the party’s nomination. In most early polling, McMaster enjoyed a consistent frontrunner position in the race to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Mark Sanford. More recent polls show him trailing Haley.
For about 10 years, the McMasters have been snapping up low-rent, near-campus college housing in the University Hill neighborhood and renting out rooms to hordes of howling, booze-soaked, bong-ripping college kids. In that time, their management style has rubbed up against neighbors, tenants and city officials and has led to some pretty serious friction in the ‘hood. The city has issued numerous citations against properties owned by the McMasters, at least one of which is still working its way through the litigation process.
They have also had to pay several thousand dollars in tax penalties for late payment of property taxes over the years. Between 1997 and 2002, they paid about $16,000 in penalties.
Right now, they are “current on all their taxes and have been for years,” according to McMaster’s gubernatorial campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey. The Richland County assessor’s office backs up Godfrey’s statement.
All in all, the McMasters own 12 houses in Richland County, according to the county treasurer’s office. Henry McMaster’s wife Peggy owns most of the properties but Henry has acted as the de facto property manager, bill collector, maintenance man and all around Mr. Fix-it, even throughout his bid for the governorship, according to several current tenants.
Six of the houses are on Greene Street between USC and Five Points. They also own two houses on Senate Street; one on Marion Street; a historic residence on Gibbes Court across from Capstone Hall; a large brick house at the corner of Henderson and Blossom streets; and a house on Gregg Street. All of them are rental properties, except their family’s main residence, a stately mansion on Senate Street.
Most of the buildings they own are divided into several units, but because the McMasters often ignore the city’s occupancy laws, it is unclear how many tenants they currently have.
Rolling up in a blue, late-model Suburban or black sedan and asking renters to take liquor bottles out of window frames, dropping by to spruce up the landscaping or playing mediator between renters and his wife, Henry McMaster’s presence has been legendary among college-aged University Hill neighborhood residents for years.
For one of them, a 23-year-old recent USC sociology graduate named Anton Briton, who lives in the Charles Edward building on Gibbes Court, seeing a man running for governor working around his apartment with a tie on and sleeves rolled up has been pretty entertaining.
“He comes by most of the time,” Briton says one evening in May while on his porch overlooking Barnwell Street. “Does some manual stuff on the house or whatever.”
Briton’s relationship with his landlord is all good, he says. There have been some things that needed fixing that took a long time to take care of, but other than that he’s enjoyed a solid living situation. He’s certainly heard other tenants in the building complain, though.
“It’s hard to think about [McMaster] taking the governorship and leading people and then not being able to take care of his tenants,” Briton says. “We’ll see how that works.”
Briton might be in the minority when it comes to tenants of the McMasters who view their landlords in such positive light. Free Times spoke with nearly two dozen current and former tenants for this story. Many of them didn’t want their names to appear in print out of fear of retribution. In addition to being their landlord, McMaster is the state’s top cop, after all.
“He’s just too scary,” one tenant said.
The word “slumlord” gets thrown around an awful lot when you talk to college kids who rent cheap apartments in neighborhoods where broken bottles, crushed beer cans and plastic cups litter the sidewalks throughout the semester. It only takes a few years of cycling through such an undisciplined roster of hard-partying young tenants before the properties start sporting the all-too-familiar signs of the undergrad Animal House: lumpy floors, broken windows, sagging ceilings and the permeating smell of stale keg beer and lingering marijuana smoke.
If only those walls could talk.
McMaster’s gubernatorial spokesman sums it up pretty well in defending his boss from the charges of his tenants.
“When you’re renting to college students, it always seems to be the landlord’s fault,” he says.
Regardless, fairly or unfairly, several current and former tenants say they consider McMaster a slumlord. And the complaints go beyond standard gripes about waiting too long to have an AC unit or refrigerator fixed.
In discussing their living situations, tenants complain of bad plumbing; broken windows; awkward confrontations with Henry; windows painted shut; bats, insects; mice; no central heating; non-working appliances; poor insulation; potentially dangerous gas leaks; rude text messages from Peggy; unjustified rent hikes; water pouring from light fixtures; being forced out of apartments; holes in ceilings, doors and floors; mistreatment of employees; discrimination; severe water damage; mold; breach of contract and the withholding of security deposits.
Even when trying to defend them on a personality basis, one tenant who Free Times recently spoke with in the living room of a McMaster-owned property couldn’t resist taking a jab at how they run their ship.
“They’re horrible landlords, but nice people,” she said.
City officials have been careful about how they address the relationship between the McMasters and the city.
On one balmy spring morning in late May, a three-person city code-enforcement team was checking up on one McMaster-owned Greene Street apartment building because a tenant had complained of the living conditions there. No violations were issued. Apparently, the McMasters had been tipped off the day before and sent someone to come in and fix the place up. They nailed a board across the bottom of a door and painted it, among other things, said a tenant.
According to Marc Mylott, the city’s director of zoning and planning, that particular house is in Henry’s name, not his wife’s. Mylott says it is standard procedure to alert a property owner or manager whenever the city plans to inspect the interior of one of their houses if a tenant complains.
A sophomore USC student named Emrys McMahon is one of eight students living in that house. He and his roommates say the McMasters promised them a washer and dryer and to re-do the floors before they moved in. The work was never done, McMahon says. During the coldest part of January, the unit’s central heating broke down and the tenants were given two space heaters, one of which didn’t turn on. McMahon slept at his girlfriend’s house. He sums up his feelings about the man who owns the house he rents bluntly.
“He’s a slumlord,” McMahon says. “He has a bunch of sh#!ty places that he doesn’t care about. He’s a slumlord.”
In a way though, McMahon and his roommates also feel a little bad for Henry. Three of them were there with Henry and his wife when it was time to take care of the lease. It was truly an awkward situation, they say.
“Peggy just, like, bosses Henry around,” McMahon says. “She’s just like a b#!ch to him all the time. She just yells at him.”
McMahon says that dynamic between Henry and his wife is “the scariest part,” more so even than what he sees as broken promises over upgrades and repairs.
Gesturing with his foot at a rotting, crumbling baseboard in his apartment, McMahon says he doesn’t have any political axe to grind against Henry. He’s merely disappointed in the way a man he knows is running for governor has treated him and his roommates as tenants.
To the McMasters, “we’re just college kids,” McMahon says. His roommates all look up from their video games and nod in agreement. They’re all moving out next month.
How Can He Fix the Budget If He Can’t Fix My Heat?
It’s a common theme Free Times heard among tenants: If McMaster treats the state the way he treats his properties and tenants, he would, in college-kid Greek speak, “f#!k it up.”
In conversations with current and past tenants who rented from the McMasters, the most widely observed complaint has been a general lack of attention to the properties or to the tenants. Almost every tenant Free Times spoke with complained of a major problem when it came to trying to get their landlords to fix something.
Many tenants also felt the McMasters treated their longtime maintenance man, known to tenants as Jay, or Mr. Jay, badly. Several current and former tenants believe Jay works long hours for no pay, only food and housing.
McMaster spokesman Godfrey didn’t respond to questions about Jay’s employment and Jay ignored an attempt by Free Times to speak with him.
He can often be seen humping it up and down the steep hills of Barnwell or Henderson streets, heading from one property to another. He used to walk the McMasters’ famed bulldog dog in the mornings when it was still alive.
“We got the idea that Jay was completely mistreated,” says a former tenant who lived in a McMaster-owned property on Greene Street in 2006.
In 2004, Peggy told a tenant that Jay had fallen from a ladder and hurt his leg. “He’s no use to me now,” the tenant recalls her saying.
Maybe the McMasters are just overworked. Henry, who keeps a full-time job as the state attorney general, could often be seen in the middle of the day in a shirt and tie hammering away at pieces of wood or hauling paints cans around the open garage they use as a hub for their properties at the corner of Greene and Henderson streets.
It’s a small operation — Peggy, Henry, their son Henry Jr. who recently graduated from USC, Mr. Jay and a handful of landscaping contractors — not a big management company.
“I think they just bit off more than they could chew,” one current tenant says.
The Constitutional Landlord
The problems between the McMasters and their tenants aren’t the only troubles they’ve had in the neighborhood. As landlords, they’ve found themselves in disputes with the city over a number of violations that range from over-occupancy to citations for tenants not bringing in roll carts on time. While many of those confrontations have quietly swirled in the bureaucratic backwaters of City Hall, a current zoning violation has remained in limbo in front of a circuit court judge since 2007 that paints a telling, detailed portrait of the McMaster-as-landlord narrative.
As it turns out, when the attorney general of South Carolina isn’t challenging the constitutionality of national health care reform on the TV talk shows, he’s down at the local zoning board defending his wife’s rental properties on the same grounds.
Acting as his wife’s agent and counsel when she caught a citation in a house they own, McMaster testified in front of the board on her behalf on Sept. 25, 2007.
Free Times first reported on the case on May 5 in the story, “McMaster Blasts Local Zoning Ordinance as Unconstitutional.”
At issue is whether the McMasters are illegally housing too many occupants in a four-bedroom home adjacent to campus.
In his testimony in front of the city zoning board, McMaster evoked the U.S. constitution at least 15 times in response to the city’s complaint. The board upheld the zoning administrator’s decision.
The McMasters are appealing the case. A separate attorney is now handling it.
Inside the court papers of the pending litigation, a rich, literary narrative details how some University Hill residents and city officials have perceived the McMasters as local landlords over the years.
In 2003, a neighbor sent a letter to the city and to the McMasters that outlined his concerns about their management of the property in question and oversight of their tenants.
“Two totally neglected dogs ran free, soiling the neighbor’s yards, or were tied for hours without proper attention,” the neighbor wrote. “Worse still, during their many parties, the humans also routinely used the space between our brick wall and your house as a urinal, and sometimes even as a commode.”
One tenant, the neighbor wrote, pitched a cigarette butt over a brick wall that burned through the top of his convertible.
“We will not tolerate the kind of disrespectful behavior that was demonstrated by your last tenants, and … we will hold you personally responsible for any such conduct,” he wrote.
The neighbor, a local doctor who has since moved out of state, ended the letter by saying he’d sent copies to “many other neighbors who have suffered silently … this long year.”
Only three unrelated people are allowed to live together in the house in question, according to city zoning officials.
According to a memo by attorneys for the city, the McMasters question the constitutionality of certain provisions of the city ordinance. Specifically, the lawyers wrote, the McMasters challenge the definition of the word “family.” They argue that limiting the number of people living in a dwelling not related by blood or marriage “works unconstitutional harm on property owners and tenants.”
“In college towns,” the lawyers wrote in defense of the city, “it is not unusual to find friction between property owners, like McMaster, who wish to maximize their rental incomes by packing housing with flocks of students” and other property owners.
However, the lawyers continue, “The public’s interest in protecting the sanctity and peace of single-family areas plainly overrides the self-interest of landlords or property owners attempting to run mini-dorms.”
McMaster considers the case a “fundamental property rights issue,” says his spokesman Godfrey.
“If four female college students next door are a threat to property values,” his spokesman continues, “then the whole university-area real estate market is doomed for eternity.”
Hypocrisy in the ‘Hood
The whole spectacle regarding the McMasters and their lawsuit makes University Hill resident Kathryn Fenner bristle. She’s the vice president of the University Hill Neighborhood Association and serves on the city’s code-enforcement task force, a blue-ribbon committee that was set up to make recommendations on city ordinances.
Fenner has observed Peggy McMaster for years — Peggy sits on the board of the neighborhood association — and Fenner’s house is surrounded by five properties the McMasters own.
Sitting in her modern, brightly colored, sun-lit living room with two large dogs playing around her, Fenner launches into an all-out assault on the way Henry and Peggy McMaster have handled their role as local landlords in the neighborhood. To her, their actions have been offensive.
The McMasters, she says, have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy with their tenants regarding the city’s over-occupancy laws. As an attorney, she finds it laughable that Henry is appealing a zoning ordinance because she thinks he’s clearly ignoring precedent of the law.
But that’s the thing with the McMasters, Fenner says: They have a sense of entitlement that allows them to act like complete hypocrites, apparently without even realizing they’re doing it.
“I think that if you are supposed to be the chief law enforcement officer in the state, you probably shouldn’t be nodding and winking at lawbreaking,” she says.
She’s speaking specifically about occupancy laws, which several tenants admitted to Free Times they were breaking but said they had a wink-and-nod agreement with their landlords about doing.
Henry has fought hard against the city to keep on doing what he’s doing and several tenants are happy their landlords are going to bat for them — with good reason. The McMasters enjoy more rent money coming in and renters end up paying less individually.
But it’s the way Henry has been doing it that bothers Fenner so much.
In testimony he gave on his wife’s behalf to the zoning board in 2007, McMaster said, “The constitution says if you’re a single housekeeping unit you may not be the traditional family, but you’re a family just the same and you’re not hurting anything any more than a traditional family.”
That really bothers Fenner, a self-described Democrat, who took umbrage to McMaster’s staunch, headline-grabbing opposition to same-sex unions when a constitutional amendment to ban state recognition of them was put on the ballot in 2006.
“What offends me chiefly is the hypocrisy,” Fenner says. “The hypocrisy that we’re going to protect non-traditional families when we can make a buck out of it and we’re going to pillory non-traditional families when we can make political bucks out of it.”
One of the jobs the city’s code-enforcement team was tasked with was developing a proposal to help crack down on absentee landlords, in part by making them apply for a city business license. Fenner says Henry McMaster fought hard to keep it from happening and the proposal never came to fruition.
McMaster said he believed the proposed ordinance would be intrusive.
The city has since come up with a watered-down code enforcement effort.
Fenner says the hypocrisy she’s seen from the McMasters in their capacity as landlords in her neighborhood reminds her of someone else.
“It’s like Mark Sanford in the front of the plane and his employee in the back of the plane going to Argentina,” she says. “It’s like Mark Sanford staying in luxury hotels while he makes his underlings double up. It’s that same kind of hypocrisy that really bothers me … He’s wrapping himself in the flag, in his family and the Bible. It’s just not real.”
Free Times emailed and called other current and past higher-ups in the neighborhood association, but didn’t hear back.
Fenner says she isn’t surprised. It goes with the Southern culture of speaking ill about your neighbors behind the white fences and wisteria but not out in public. That, of course, would be ugly.
Even powerful Democratic attorneys, she says, can be what she calls “weenies” when it comes to speaking out about the man who might be governor.
“But,” she says, “that’s ‘ole Henry for you.”
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