HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (WSAV) — They are an important part of the tourism industry on Hilton Head Island.
Now some of the people who work in local hotels, restaurants, landscaping, and more are about to lose their homes.
Residents of Chimney Cove got eviction notices earlier this month.
More than 300 people living there, including 76 kids who attend Beaufort County Schools, and even more younger children, were told they had to leave.
The reason? The owner, Sam Johal is selling the property to Debartolo Development from Florida. The property, which has been home to dozens of lower-income, mostly Spanish-speaking families over the years, will apparently be turned into higher-end condos or townhouses on the multi-acre property.
“These are the people who do the work for the Island in so many ways. We want them to remain here with us,” said Reverend June Wilkins of Christ Lutheran Church.
Christ Lutheran Church is next door to the apartments, and the church does its part to try and help the families whenever it can.
Reverend June Wilkins is upset for all the families, because they work hard every day, only to have the rug pulled out from under them, and left out in the cold.
“If you are evicting them from those apartments you are basically evicting them from Hilton Head,” said Wilkins.
Many of the men and women who live in the mid-Island complex have been able to walk or bike to work and able to send their children to Hilton Head Schools.
But with limited to no affordable housing on the Island, now many have no idea where they may live next.
Sandy Gillis, Executive Director of non-profit Deep Well Project believes the owner took advantage of the language barrier in his rental contracts.
“Many of the rental renewals were made month to month, or people were only given 30 days to leave in the paperwork if the landlord told them they were getting evicted, no matter what the reason,” explained Gillis.
Gillis said she thought everyone would get a few months, as many as six, to be able to find a new place and move out. But when one of the tenants came into Deep Well looking for help, she realized there was an issue.
“The woman came in on a Monday to speak to our Spanish-speaking volunteer,” remembers Gillis. “She said can you please tell me what this says, pointing at her eviction notice. I think they are telling me I can’t keep living there.”
“When our volunteer translated for her and told her what it says she promptly burst into tears.”
Those notices and the rental contracts that the resident signed were in English. Gillis wonders if that was intentional to take advantage of the language barrier for the future.
Their rents already raised from $700-$800 four years ago to $1,400-$1,500 now.
“Based on $1,500 a month and 52 units. He’s been banking about $75,000 a month from these families,” said Wilkins.
“Most of these people are current with their payments,” explains Gillis. “They are self-sufficient carrying a $1,500 a month rent, these people are having their lease terminated through no fault of their own.”
“There are 52 units there and there are not 52 units available for people in that income range to rent on Hilton Head,” explains Rev. Wilkins.
This means most of these people will be a forced to leave not just the apartment they call home, but the Island they love.
“If you are going to do it, there is a humane way to do it,” said Reverend Wilkins.
The process will happen fast. Many of the eviction notices have a date of Sept. 12 on them. Others in October, November, or December.
The eviction notice itself even threatens to “initiate an action of ejectment” and the Sheriff of Beaufort County will be called to “evict you from the property immediately.”
Wilkins says she spoke to Sheriff PJ Tanner who says his staff has no plans to forcibly evict anyone from the property. But if the owner requests it themselves then they may have to act.
The Town of Hilton Head says it has been briefed on what’s happening at Chimney Cove and is discussing what if anything it can do to help.
The transaction is on private property, and seemingly not illegal in any way. If the new owner does abide by the rules and zoning restrictions, the Town’s hands may be tied.
News 3 did ask for comment from the Town of Hilton Head about what’s next or what they may do but has not heard back.
News 3 also attempted to contact Sam Johal through his company he is named as a Vice President of on Linkedin, Hilton Head Hospitality.
The numbers available either did not work, or no one answered.
Johal, who also owns Hilton Head’s Best Western Ocean Breeze Inn, and his brother previously forced out nearly 40 low-income Hispanic families in 2016. This came after the pair renovated the complex and wanted to place seasonal workers inside instead, according to a 2016 article from the Island Packet.
Christ Lutheran Church and Deep Well have each set up a fund to help out the residents who are looking for homes.
They estimate close to half have no place to go or will experience financial issues connected to deposits and rental agreements.
Each fund will be designed not as much to pay their rent but to help with moving costs and the deposits so they can find someplace to live.
Christ Lutheran Church Chimney Cove Fund:
Deep Well Project Chimney Cove Fund:
Gillis says along with the fund, she would like to see some of our Hilton Head neighbors step up and offer their short-term rental on the Island to these families for a longer-term rental. Even a few months Gillis says will give the families time to find a more permanent solution.
There is a resident-only meeting for Chimney Cove set for Sunday at Christ Lutheran Church where residents can get more information in various languages about what is happening, and what resources are available to them.
The Beaufort County School District released the following statement on its commitment to allowing the affected students to stay enrolled at their schools.
The BCSD superintendent and student services officer have reached out to the HHI principals to ensure these families and students receive support from school social workers and school counselors. Because these students will be transitioning from their residence, they will be able to remain enrolled at their current school as per the Federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.