A day after Rodger Gamble was supposed to vacate the Ocean Apartments in Atlantic Beach, he stood under the balcony smoking a cigarette as officers from North Myrtle Beach police and the State Law Enforcement Division served a warrant upstairs.
Four people were arrested on drug charges after cocaine and marijuana were found in unit 204, according to warrants. Gamble wasn’t in trouble. But he and all the other tenants were supposed to be out by now.
It’s emblematic of the problem Gamble and other tenants are facing: the apartment has a less-than-stellar public reputation, even though residents say most of the people living at the apartments now are not trouble-makers.
The building was subject to a consent order of abatement against the apartment to prevent it from operating for a year after a raid in the fall of 2018 netted almost a dozen people, mostly on drug charges. But many of them didn’t live in Atlantic Beach: residents said drug dealers just use the apartment building as a meeting place.
That didn’t matter, though. The nuisance action was against the apartment building itself because it was the location of criminal activity, no matter if the residents there were involved or not.
And in April of 2019, an undercover SLED agent began buying cocaine from another person in the building.
After some debate about when the building would close, notices were sent out on June 11 to the residents informing them that they needed to be out by July 15.
But they’re not gone yet.
The South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center got involved. The firm, which represents low-income clients, filed two motions asking for relief from the consent order on behalf of Gamble, Chris Drumgoole and Sheikena Bradley.
The firm argued in court documents that the three tenants had an interest in the property because of their leases, were not respondents in the abatement action and were not involved in any of the criminal conduct.
“The tenants weren’t named, they weren’t served, they weren’t involved in this case at all and didn’t have any chance to make the arguments that they had,” said justice center attorney Adam Protheroe. “These folks are also not folks that are involved in any of the alleged nuisance behavior. The nuisance action shutting down an entire apartment complex … is overly broad, it goes too far.”
The Justice Center argued that the tenants could not afford to move out, and claimed that if the tenants were required to move by July 15, they could face homelessness as well as the loss of their jobs and custody of their children.
“The folks out there are folks of limited means,” Protheroe said. “It’s expensive to move. The other issue, in a lot of places, it’s difficult to find places that are affordable if you have limited income. There might not be housing out there. They’re not short-term residents. Some of these folks have been out there for a number of years. They’re losing their tenancy which is a legal right.”
Gamble, who does maintenance and handyman jobs, declined to comment for the story on the advice of attorneys, but previously told MyHorryNews that he had a hard time finding work after the consent order accused Gamble of letting the drug activity occur, even though Gamble denies the accusation and was never charged. His neighbor, Candace Cole, told MyHorryNews that Gamble would do his best to prevent the drug activity.
The 15th Circuit Solicitor’s Office argued in a court response that the residents who were leasing the property had adequate notice of the abatement and did not have a vested interest in the property because they could not prove ownership.
“The action is against the owners, obviously not the renter, and the renter has a diminished right,” Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said. “But we’ve been as fair as we could to everybody involved. We gave them all kinds of extra time to get out.”
The solicitor’s office also said in court documents that the abatement order was against the building and not the tenants and since the building was already declared a public nuisance, keeping it open for the tenants’ sake would punish the surrounding community.
“Honestly, under the order that we’re under, we would be well within our rights to go ahead and do whatever the order said to do,” Richardson said. Atlantic Beach police or county law enforcement could kick people out. But the solicitor added that because the issue is being litigated in court, he would advise against such a move.
“You’re dealing with kind of a delicate situation and no one wants to misstep,” Richardson said.
Judge Benjamin Culbertson is tentatively scheduled to hear the case on Monday.
“The judge, if he backs down from his order, that’s fine,” Richardson said. “If he doesn’t, maybe all we need is some clarification and hopefully we’ll get that on Monday.”