Have you heard of Pacaso Second Homes?

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Dirt Lawyers: take a look at this company’s website: www.pacaso.com

(Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

I try to keep abreast of trends in the real estate market, but I missed this interesting story entirely. Luckily, my husband, Frank, a voracious purveyor of the news, pointed this article from NPR out to me. The story, dated August 24, is entitled “A Startup is Turning Houses into Corporations, And the Neighbors Are Fighting Back”. You can read the story in its entirety here.

It seems a “unicorn” (a startup corporation with a billion-dollar valuation) called Pacaso, is buying homes, slightly refurbishing them, furnishing them, and creating limited liability companies to own them. The ownership of each house is then divvied into eight fractional shares, and each share is marketed on the company’s website. Each share entitles an owner to 44 nights per year. Each visit is limited to no more than 14 days.

The corporation offers an app to handle booking, maintenance, and cleaning. The cost is 12% of the value of the property up front and monthly maintenance fees. After ownership for a year, each fractional owner is entitled to sell its interest at a gain or loss. Gifts of stays at the houses can also be made to friends or family members. The company advertises that it only buys luxury and super-luxury homes and that it is not competing with middle-class families for housing.

The news story and the company’s website indicate the corporation was founded in 2020 by two former Zillow executives. One of the founders who lives in Napa bought a second home in Lake Tahoe and immediately became inspired with making the dream of second home ownership available for more people.

This type of ownership is not new to real estate practitioners who practice on South Carolina’s coast. For sale signs for beachfront houses touting “Interval Ownership” are common. In fact, intervals in these homes seem to be perpetually for sale. 

My speculation about the frequency of these sales has always been that owning a home with multiple individuals and entities you don’t know can’t be much fun. It’s hard enough for two spouses to agree on when undertake major maintenance items. Imagine trying to decide when to spend the money on exterior painting with a large group.

 The crux of NPR’s article is the opposition being mounted by neighbors of some of the houses. It’s not surprising that owners in nice single-family neighborhoods would oppose the parade of vacationers interval ownership might create. One group of neighbors in Napa printed signs reading “No Pacaso” for homes and cars, wrote opinion pieces for local newspapers and were otherwise extremely vocal in their opposition.

Valid legal arguments might be made in these neighborhoods if restrictive covenants or zoning ordinances exclude timeshares or Airbnb-types of ownership, but Pacaso insists its model involves neither form. All real estate law is, of course, local, so various arguments will be mounted in different locations.

In response to the opposition in the Napa neighborhood, the company agreed to sell the home in question in the traditional manner. It also agreed to beef up noise provisions in its documents, to create a local liaison dedicated to assisting neighbors, to refrain from buying homes in the area valued less than $2 million and to donate funds to a local nonprofit dedicated to affordable housing.

I didn’t see any South Carolina homes in a quick review of the company’s website, but I did see homes located in Florida. I can only imagine that South Carolina’s beautiful coastline will be discovered soon. Real estate practitioners will likely be involved in both sides of this controversy.

South Carolina Supreme Court protects Captain Sam’s Spit again

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Photo courtesy of the Post and Courier

This blog has discussed “Captain Sam’s Spit” in Kiawah Island three times before. Googling that picturesque name will reveal a treasure trove of news, opinion and case law involving the proposed development of a beautiful and extremely precarious tract of pristine beach property on South Carolina’s coast.

In the latest case*, South Carolina’s Supreme Court refers to the property as one of our state’s only three remaining pristine sandy beaches readily accessible to the general public. The other two are Hunting Island State Park and Huntington Beach State Park. I enjoy the blessing of walking the pristine beach of Huntington Beach State Park on a regular basis, so despite having a career on the periphery of real estate development, I am in favor of maintaining these three state treasures.

The South Carolina Bar’s Real Estate Intensive seminar in 2016 and 2018 included field trips to Captain Sam’s Spit, from a distance at least. Professor Josh Eagle of the University of South Carolina School of Law was an excellent tour guide, and how many opportunities do we, as dirt lawyers, have for field trips? The South Carolina Environmental Law Project, located in Pawleys Island, fights these cases. Amy Armstrong, an attorney with that entity, joined our group to explain the environmental and legal issues.

Here are greatly simplified facts. Captain Sam’s Spit encompasses approximately 170 acres of land above the mean high-water mark along the southwestern tip of Kiawah Island and is surrounded by water on three sides. The Spit is over a mile long and 1,600 feet at its widest point, but the focal point of the latest appeal is the land along the narrowest point (the “neck”), which is the isthmus of land connecting it to the remainder of Kiawah Island. The neck occurs at a deep bend in the Kiawah River where it changes direction before eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean via Captain Sam’s Inlet.

The neck has been migrating eastward because of the erosive forces of the Kiawah River. The “access corridor”—the buildable land between the critical area and the ocean-side setback line—has narrowed significantly in the past decade to less than thirty feet. Googling this issue will lead to active maps which show the change over time. The width of the neck is significant because the developer needs enough space to build a road. At the base of the neck is Beachwalker Park, operated by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission. Our fieldtrips were conducted on that Park.

Previously, the administrative law court (ALC), over the initial objection of DHEC, has granted permits for the construction of an extremely large erosion control device in the critical area. In the prior cases (citations omitted), the Supreme Court found the ALC erred. The current appeal stems from the ALC’s third approval of another structure termed “gargantuan” by the Supreme Court—a 2,380-foot steel sheet pile wall designed to combat the erosive forces carving into the sandy river shoreline in order to allow the developer to construct the road to support the development of fifty houses. The Court again reversed and, in effect, shut down the proposed development, at least temporarily. The economic interests of an increased tax base and employment opportunities do not justify eliminating the public’s use of protected tidelands, according to the Court.

After a motion for a re-hearing, the result is the same. The Court reaffirmed its earlier decision without further arguments. We’ve pondered whether each case is the end of the litigation. At this point, we don’t know. Creative developers and lawyers may make further attempts to proceed. Stay tuned.

*South Carolina Coastal Conservative League v. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28031 (June 2, 2021); Re-Filed September 1, 2021.

United States Supreme Court terminates eviction moratorium

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Last Thursday, the United States Supreme Court blocked the CDC’s Covid-related eviction moratorium. The eight-page unsigned 6-3 opinion stated Congress was on notice that a further extension would require new legislation but failed to act in the weeks leading up to the moratorium’s expiration.

Congress has approved nearly $50 billion to assist renters. But estimates indicate many states have disbursed less than 5% if the available funds. More than 7 million renters are in default and subject to eviction. Bureaucratic delays at state and local levels have prevented payments that would assist landlords as well as tenants.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Congress adopted a limited, temporary moratorium on evictions. After the moratorium lapsed last July, the CDC issued a new eviction ban. The ban was extended twice more.

The three liberal justices dissented. The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Breyer said that the public interest is not supported by the court’s second-guessing of the CDC’s judgment in the fact of the spread of COVID-19.

Landlords, real estate companies and trade associations, led by the Alabama Association of Realtors, who challenged the moratorium in this case, argued that the moratorium was not authorized by the law the CDC relied on, the Public Health Service Act of 1944.

That law, the challengers said, authorized quarantines and inspections to stop the spread of disease but did not give the CDC the “the unqualified power to take any measure imaginable to stop the spread of communicable disease – whether eviction moratoria, worship limits, nationwide lockdowns, school closures or vaccine mandates.”

The CDC argued that the moratorium was authorized by the Public Health Service Act of 1944, and that evictions would accelerate the spread of the virus by forcing people to move into closer quarters in shared housing settings with friends or family or congregate in homeless shelters.

Some states and municipalities have issued their own moratoriums, and some judges have indicated they will slow-walk cases as the pandemic intensifies. We will have to watch and see how the termination of the moratorium interacts with the current backlog of cases in South Carolina. Real estate lawyers should be prepared to advise their landlord and tenant clients.

Court decides an interesting, but unpublished, case on the effect of a plat notation

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Unpublished opinions don’t typically get my attention, but my friend, Bill Booth, sent this one* to me because he found it interesting, and I do, too. As a reminder, unpublished opinions have no precedential value, but they sometimes provide insight on how the Court might react in a similar situation, at least under the current makeup of the court.

The issue in this case was whether a notation on a subdivision plat that certain lots were “for agricultural use only” created a valid restriction of the use of the lots. Mikell Scarborough, Master-in-Equity for Charleston County, granted summary judgment, relying on extrinsic evidence to conclude that there was no intent to create a restriction despite the plain language on the face of the plat. That decision was affirmed.

The Court cited familiar cases holding that restrictive covenants are contractual in nature and must be strictly construed in favor of the free use of property. The Court also referred to cases holding that when a deed describes land as shown on a plat, the plat becomes a part of the deed. The interesting twist became whether the plat notation created an ambiguity that would allow the introduction of extrinsic evidence.

The Court found that the language in the plat was not ambiguous, but that the origin of the note created the ambiguity. The surveyor provided an affidavit to the effect that the Charleston County Planning Commission placed the agricultural use restriction on the plat “for the purpose of indicating that Charleston County would not, at that time, approve building permits for the lots because (the lots in question) did not meet current minimum standards for a modified conventional sub-service disposal system.”

When the plat was submitted for approval, the property owners included a letter explaining they were aware that the land possessed poor soil conditions for septic systems. The letter requested that the subdivision be approved with the stipulation that any lot that did not support a septic system would be restricted from becoming a building lot until public sewer service became available.

The case doesn’t make this point clear, but I am assuming the Appellant sued other lot owners who had built on their lots despite the plat notation. In other words, the Appellant wanted the restriction enforced as to other lots, not the lot the Appellant purchased. Interestingly, one house had been built before the Appellant purchased its lot.

A representative of the Appellant claimed he relied on the plat notation and that his title insurance company told him the lots were restricted. The Court found it significant, however, that the property owners who recorded the plat did not intend to restrict the property.

The Appellant argued that the deeds for all the lots specifically state that the property is subject to all restrictions, reservations, easements and other limitations that appear of record, including on the Plat. The Court held, citing 20 Am. Jur. 2d Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions §151 (2015) that common “subject to” language does not create a restriction where none exists.

The Appellant also argued that an agricultural use exception in the title insurance policy was evidence that the restriction ran with the land, but the Court held that the title insurance company was merely noting the provision was on the plat so that it would not be liable if the Appellant could not build on its lot.  

The Court concluded that the record does not contain a scintilla of evidence to support the imposition of a building restriction on the Respondents’ lots.

Carpenter Braselton, LLC v. Roberts, South Carolina Court of Appeals Unpublished Opinion No. 2021-UP-280.

SC Supreme Court deals with Rock Hill stormwater issue

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Justice Few declares piping storm water under a house is “wrong”

I love a case where a separate opinion (usually a dissent) cuts to the chase and explains in a few words a multiple-page quagmire.  That’s what we have in Ray v. City of Rock Hill*, a case decided on August 4 by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Lucille Ray sued the City of Rock Hill for inverse condemnation, claiming her property was taken as a result of stormwater flowing through pipes under City streets into a terra cotta pipe that runs behind her property. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the City, and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the City engaged in an affirmative, positive, aggressive act sufficient to support the inverse condemnation claim. The Supreme Court modified and affirmed that decision, remanding the case for a determination on that issue.

The facts are particularly interesting for dirt lawyers. Ray purchased her house on College Avenue in 1985. Before the house was built in the 1920s, someone—there is no record as to who—installed a 24-inch underground terra cotta pipe under the property. The property and the pipe are located at the topographical low point of a 29-acre watershed. Three stormwater pipes installed and owned by the City collect stormwater and transport it under various streets in the neighborhood. Stormwater runs through the pipe to a catch basin directly in front of Ray’s house. When the water reaches the catch basin, it is channeled under Ray’s house to the back of her property. The pipe has been channeling stormwater in this fashion for roughly 100 years although the record reflects no evidence of an easement.

You won’t be shocked that Ray’s property had a history of sinking and settling. In 1992, Ray saw her gardener fall waist-deep into a sinkhole. The house’s roof was subject to bending and movement. The steps on the front porch sank. In 2008, Ray contacted the City and was told about the pipe running under those steps. (This exchange supported the City’s claim that the statute of limitations had run on a damages claim.)

In 2012, Ray brought this action seeking inverse condemnation and trespass. Other relief was sought and the South Carolina Department of Transportation was added as a defendant, but those issues are not relevant to this appeal. Shortly after Ray brought the suit, the City began maintenance work on a sewer line beneath College avenue.

To get to the sewer line, the City had to dig up part of College Avenue in front of the property and to sever three stormwater pipes from the catch basin. The basis of the inverse condemnation claim is that the City’s reconnection of the pipes to the catch basin was an affirmative, positive, aggressive act. That issue was returned to the circuit court for determination.

Justice Few’s separate opinion (not categorized as a concurrence or a dissent) is cogent. He wrote to make two points. First, the City should not be piping stormwater under Ray’s house! It is wrong, he said, and he doesn’t care who built the pipe or whose fault it is that the house is sinking because of the water. “The City should do the right thing and fix the problem.”

Justice Few’s second point is that all wrongs are not subject to redress in our civil courts. To the extent Ray’s inverse condemnation theory is valid, he said, the taking occurred many years ago, either when the pipes were installed or when the deterioration of the pipes began to harm the property. He said it makes no difference that the pipes were reconnected in 2012. The effect of that act was to continue to run storm water under property Ray alleges had already been taken.

Justice Few concluded that there is simply no right of action available under an inverse condemnation theory and that the circuit court correctly dismissed that claim

I look forward to what happens next!

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28045, August 4, 2021

Eviction ban extended…again

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The federal block on evictions expired on July 31, but on August 3, it was extended for an additional sixty days. The new order indicates it is designed to “target specific areas of the country where cases are rapidly increasing, which likely would be exacerbated by mass evictions.” The new deadline is October 3. The money received through this program is nontaxable.

I’ve read that the targeting language only limits the extent of the moratorium to 80 percent of the country geographically and 90% of the population, so that’s not much of a restriction.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has indicated that 14.3% of the 44.1 million renter households are behind of rent.

There are many problems with the system. I’ve read the major concern is that the bulk of the available funds for rental assistance haven’t been distributed. Landlords seem to be faced with helping their tenants apply for the funds in order to receive the funds. And for all of us who have dealt with government, we understand that few governmental processes are efficient. This one is apparently not an exception to that general rule.  For tenants who are living on the outer edge of their ability to work and take care of their children, time and patience to deal with the inefficient process may be in short supply.

Under the new order, protected renters include:

  • Renters who have tried to obtain governmental assistance for rent or housing.
  • Renters who earned no more than $99,000 or $198,000 filing jointly in 2020 or do not expect to earn at those levels in 2021.
  • Renters who are unable to pay the full rent because of loss of household income or out-of-pocket medical expenses.
  • Renters for whom eviction would result in homelessness or force them to reside in close quarters in a shared living setting (thus increasing the risk of COVID).
  • Renters who living in a county experiencing a high rate of infection.

Because the bulk of the funds have not been claimed, the CFPB has introduced an on-line tool to help landlords and tenants locate the funds in state and local governmental agencies. The tool can be found here.

I have concerns that this program is going to take a great deal of sorting out at some point. Is it constitutional?  What will a holding of unconstitutionality mean? Will COVID require further extensions? Will funds have to be repaid by states and local governments if the funds are not properly applied? Will landlords or tenants be forced to repay such funds? Dirt lawyers will undoubtedly have to deal with of these issues in the future in representing their landlord and tenant clients.

All of us are tired of COVID. We seemed at one point to being so close to having it under control, but now we are seeing a frightening trend of rising cases and deaths, particularly among a younger population. All of us with children and grandchildren who cannot be vaccinated are concerned about what this school year will bring. At the risk of being perceived as preaching and apologizing up front who have medical reasons to resist, I strongly encourage vaccines!

HUD to enforce sexual orientation and gender identity anti-discrimination rule

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This blog has referred to the Dirt Listserv* previously, and I point in that direction again today for those among us who may represent clients in the business of renting or selling housing. On July 12, Professor Dale Whitman published a post entitled “Fair Housing Act will be applied to prohibit LGBTQ discrimination.”

The post mentions a Supreme Court case and a Department of Housing and Urban Development Press Release.

The case** held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender. The plaintiff, Gerald Bostock, worked as a child-welfare advocate for Clayton County, Georgia and was fired for conduct “unbecoming” a county employee when he started playing in a gay softball league. (Two cases from other circuits were consolidated with this case. One involved a person who was fired from his job as a skydiving instructor within days of mentioning to his employer that he is gay. The other involved a funeral home employee who was fired after disclosing to her employer her transgender status and intent to live and work as a woman.)

The press release was issued by HUD and can be read here. HUD announced that it will administer and enforce the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  

The release said that a number of studies indicate same-sex couples and transgender persons experience demonstrably less favorable treatment than their counterparts when seeking housing. But HUD was previously constrained in its efforts to address this housing discrimination because of a legal uncertainty about whether this discrimination is within HUD’s reach. HUD has now reached a legal conclusion based partially on the Bostock case. HUD indicates that it is simply saying that discrimination the Supreme Court held to be illegal in the workplace is also illegal in the housing market.

Complaints may be filed by contacting HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office at (800) 669-9777 or hud.gov/fairhousing.

Clients involved in housing should be advised of this development.

* Real Estate Lawyers Listserv: Dirt@LISTSERV.UMKC.EDU

** Bostock v. Clayton County, 590 U.S. ___ (2020)

Do we face lurking condo repair problems like those in Surfside, Florida?

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This is a difficult subject, and I’ve waited to address it for time to pass since the tragic June 24 collapse of the 136-unit Champlain Towers South condo project in Surfside, Florida.

South Carolina has many aging condominium projects, particularly along our coast. And we have an earthquake fault line to consider. Do our local homeowners’ association boards face expensive repair and reserve dangers similar to those in Florida?

Dale Whitman, the esteemed retired professor from the University of Missouri School of Law who moderates the national Dirt Real Estate Lawyers Listserv (Dirt@listserv.umkc.edu) has commented on Florida’s concerns in this regard. (If you’re not already following this listserv, I highly recommend it for all South Carolina dirt lawyers.)

Professor Whitman pointed to two informative and insightful news stories on the collapse, one from NBC News and the other from the Miami Herald.

The legal news following the collapse is that the Florida Bar has appointed a committee to review existing Florida legislation and to make recommendations for changes. Apparently, Florida law requiring reserve studies is weak and can be waived by a majority of the unit owners. To my knowledge, South Carolina has no such legislation.

It was estimated that nearly $17 million would have been needed to make the necessary repairs to the building that collapsed, but that available reserves amounted to only $770,000. Massive special assessments (more than $300,000 per unit) would have been needed. Collection was ongoing at the time of the collapse. But many unit owners simply did not have access to funds in that amount.

Professor Whitman wrote in the listserve on July 8:

“A much more robust program of reserves would have been needed to avoid this problem. But how much?  The need for a large expenditure to shore up the building’s structure is inherently unpredictable; it isn’t like a roof with a 20-year life, for example. But some sort of prediction is nonetheless necessary. Pick a number: say, a goal of achieving a reserve of 20% of the building’s original capital cost over the first 20 years of the building’s life, with continuing growth at the same rate thereafter. That would mean that the original assessments would be considerably higher than they would be with a more modest, conventional reserve program. It would add to the residents’ monthly cost and would make ‘affordable housing’ harder to achieve. But isn’t that better than a catastrophic collapse?”

He also speculated that periodic structural inspections by qualified engineers may be necessary. The building that collapsed apparently had such an inspection in 2018. That inspection revealed structural problems that could have been repaired for $9 million.

A couple of Florida Counties require aging high-rises to go through inspections after they reach 40 years of age. Failing the inspections can result in the loss of certificates of occupancy. But there is no similar state-wide requirement in Florida or South Carolina.

Much more stringent building inspection and condominium law requirements may be needed in South Carolina. I believe our HOA legislative scheme provides only the bare bones necessary to create and maintain a horizontal property regime. And I am not aware of any state-wide legislation that requires periodic inspections of high-rise buildings.

We should watch to see what Florida does and consider making similar changes. These issues are difficult to legislate and enforce but preventing comparable tragedies in South Carolina must be worth the effort.

Expect a new look to uniform notes, security instruments and riders

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Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have introduced new uniform notes, security instruments and riders for use immediately, with a deadline for use of January 1, 2023.

Read the press release here and review the new documents here.

The press release touts the benefits of the updated instruments as:

  • Easier to use: Employ more headings and subheadings, shorter paragraphs and sentences, and more clearly defined lists.
  • Provide more clarity: Use plainer language and clarify the explanation of borrower and lender obligations.
  • Reflect industry changes: Account for the changes that the industry has experienced over time and better reflect current industry practices and systems.

Fannie and Freddie are providing an 18-month transition period to allow lenders and their vendors to prepare.

Dirt lawyers should review the new documents to determine whether changes are needed in how closing documents are explained to clients.

What do you think of the new documents?