- South Carolina received $271 million from the US government in April to help renters.
- Only a quarter of that money has been given out and the state has the most evictions in the country.
- Weak protections for renters and landlord disputes stalled the assistance application process.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, tenants had a harder time holding onto their housing in South Carolina than anywhere else in the country, the state seeing seven times more evictions than the national average in 2016.
Now, the federal government is reallocating over a billion dollars to states that have spent the Treasury’s previous rental aid. That doesn’t include South Carolina, because it hasn’t spent the vast majority of its original allotment.
The need is there, the funding is there, but the execution isn’t.
Even though the state is sitting on a stockpile of federal aid, it’s still seeing thousands of eviction filings in the months since the federal moratorium ended. Housing advocates, tenants, and landlords chalk the number of evictions up to procedural issues at the state level, which has made the application process difficult to complete, and whose housing agency often does not respond to applicants, The State’s Rebecca Liebson reported on January 4.
Some states, like South Carolina, haven’t spent most of the hundreds of millions in federal aid they received last year, meant to be distributed to tenants in danger of eviction. It’s a case study in how a federal response to a crisis doesn’t always translate to timely state action.
South Carolina has had the highest eviction rate in the country by far, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, both as a state and in individual counties. Despite changes to the process on the part of South Carolina’s housing department — which also attempted to address obstacles posed by landlords — tenants and advocates say that applying for relief remains difficult.
“Many people got stuck in the process and could not get the help they needed,” Sue Berkowitz, director of the SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center, told Insider.
Federal assistance isn’t making its way down
The federal eviction moratorium, which ended in August, as well as a set of state eviction bans, have been responsible for keeping millions of Americans in their homes during the pandemic, protection that has ended in recent months, and is continuing to cease across states this week.
Despite the federal government giving South Carolina $271 million to help keep renters in their homes in April, only a quarter of that money was given out by the end of 2021, according to an analysis by the National Equity Atlas.
A full 15 states including South Carolina had distributed less than 20% of the total cash each received from the federal government by the end of October, the National Equity Atlas found. This left 4.7 million low-income households in South Carolina, Georgia, Delaware, and Alabama still behind on rent — and at risk of eviction — by that time.
Just over $69 million of the aid has been distributed to nearly 14,000 households in South Carolina by January 7, Chris Winston, a spokesperson for the SC State Housing Finance and Development Authority, which oversees the state’s rental assistance program, told Insider. This is while the counties of Richland and Charleston, which received federal funding separate from the housing department’s, have spent nearly all their money, and stopped accepting applications.
County-by-county delivery has been uneven
Many practical problems within SC Stay Plus, the South Carolina housing department’s rental assistance program, are responsible for the stall in distribution across 42 counties, according to lawyers and housing advocates. Additionally, Winston said, landlords refusing to cooperate with tenants have also compounded the obstruction to cash flow.
Seven of South Carolina’s largest counties, including Charleston, were excluded from the federal funding because they received money from the US Department of Treasury to run their own programs. Richland County is still seeing evictions, and requested money from the SC Stay Plus fund. On Thursday, Winston told Insider, the US Treasury approved a request by the housing department to allocate $10 million to Charleston County.
The biggest challenge is getting those applications completed.
The process of completing an application has been fraught for many
There are five steps to the application, according to the housing department’s website: respondents must first complete an application with basic information, then submit requested documents. That’s where things tend to go wrong, with applicants reporting that they’re asked to re-upload items they already did, or that they’re continually asked to upload new things after they’ve completed the application. There is a section for landlords to upload their own documents, another area where tenants may encounter holdup from landlords. Finally, there is a section for tenants to check their application status, where applicants say they’re often left in limbo.
The housing department said it’s unaware of any situations where documentation was lost, and that a call back was replaced to everyone who requested one, but said that they did not reach out to applicants again if they had full voicemails or didn’t anwer the initial call.
Berkowitz told Insider that tenants applying for aid through SC Stay Plus would often not hear back from the agency when asking questions about applying, that tenants were often told that their applications were being addressed without follow up, and that applicants would continually see materials lost by the agency. She also said that there’s a backlog because of the amount of documentation the tenants are required to provide, which Winston said as well.
Landlords have otherwise been causing problems for the tenants by not being cooperative with the process. “I think it has gotten to the point where they don’t care, it has taken so long they just want to cut their losses,” and get new tenants in, she added, even if that means sacrificing back rent.
Winston also said that landlords have been responsible for much of the holdup, adding that the department changed their guidelines over the summer to allow direct payment to tenants when landlords are unresponsive, but he said landlords will always be their first option. For example, landlords are still asked to provide a W-9 or other documentation to receive payments for the initial application.
From what she’s heard from tenants, changes haven’t fixed the problems within the process, Berkowitz said.
“I just received an email from someone last week that the agency has known about since September, and [because] the landlord has not been cooperating for the past 6 weeks, the application has stalled,” she said.