Post and Courier
By David Slade

In South Carolina and across the nation, efforts to put billions of dollars in rent relief into the hands of landlords to keep tenants from being evicted have been moving at a snail’s pace.

The federal government approved more than $45 billion to prevent lower-income renters impacted financially by the COVID-19 pandemic from being evicted or having their utilities shut off due to nonpayment. States, large cities and counties began receiving the money in February, but by the end of June only about $3 billion had been distributed.

In South Carolina, it’s been going even slower.

In the largest state program, covering 39 of 46 counties, less than 3.5 percent of the money had been distributed by mid-August.

The state authority SC Housing received $271.8 million to help renters in the 39 counties not large enough to directly receive federal funds, and launched a program called SC Stay Plus in May. So far it’s distributed about $9 million, helping 2,205 households.

Now, SC Housing has reduced paperwork requirements and expanded outreach efforts, hoping to get more applicants and process applications more quickly. Many renters won’t have to prove much more than their identities, and that they are renters; the rest of the requirements will rely on sworn statements rather than documentation. That could help the agency process about 7,500 applications that didn’t have all the documentation required initially.

“There’s always a tension between being a good steward of taxpayer funds and getting people the help they need,” said SC Housing spokesman Chris Winston. “We want people to come apply and get through the process.”

SC Housing has decided that renters in 196 ZIP codes — nearly half the ZIP codes in the state — will no longer have to document that their incomes are low enough to qualify. They will also not have to document that they are in an unstable housing situation, or suffered financially due to the pandemic. Instead, they will need to sign a form stating that’s the case under penalty of perjury, Winston said.

SC Housing hasn’t publicized the list of ZIP codes, but tenants who live in those areas will find fewer documentation requirements if they apply for help.

Under federal rules, renters must have incomes no higher than 80 percent of the median income for the area where they live, depending on household size, in order to qualify. That means, for example, that a single person in Charleston County could earn up to $46,000 and qualify, while a single person in less-affluent Bamberg County could earn no more than $29,350.

“What we came up with that really helped clear things up was we identified 196 ZIP codes where the average income for renters is below, or well below, that 80 percent AMI (area median income),” Winston said. “If you live in those ZIP codes and you are renting, there’s an overwhelming chance that you qualify.”

The state’s seven largest counties — Anderson, Berkeley, Charleston, Greenville, Horry, Richland and Spartanburg — received direct federal funding and are running their own rent and utility assistance programs. Residents of those counties would contact their county directly, not SC Housing.

The federal funds can pay up to 12 months of back rent and utilities, with the money going directly to landlords and utility companies. Tenants must apply, but landlords are also involved in the application process.

For example, to get the federal money from SC Housing, tenants need to show that they have a rental agreement and landlords have to sign up as state vendors and provide a tax identification number. Winston said that’s a challenge for some tenants and landlords who have informal rental arrangements.

The relatively small number of applicants has also prompted SC Housing to step up outreach and support efforts. The agency has added staff to its call center and extended call center hours.

Applicants can now call SC Housing’s call center at 800-476-0412 from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Advertising and social media efforts are also being increased by SC Housing, utility companies are helping to spread the word, and SC Housing is adding more in-person assistance events at public libraries.

In-person support is being offered at libraries in Beaufort County (331 Scott St.), Pickens County (304 Biltmore Road, Easley) and Lancaster County (313 S. White St.) Monday through Saturday.

Charleston County also used public libraries to offer support and assistance to rent relief applicants, and by early August had approved assistance for 2,075 households, according to the county. Spokeswoman Kelsey Barlow said the county has so far committed about $10 million of its federal funding — about as much as SC Housing has approved to help residents of 39 counties.

For rent and utility assistance in Charleston County, call 855-452-5374 Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.