Explainer: Why Aid Is Slow to Reach South Carolina Tenants
A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after President Joe Biden's administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.
Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.
Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who were behind on their rents.
Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.
Here's the situation in South Carolina:
WHAT'S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?
The South Carolina Supreme Court suspended most evictions and foreclosures in March 2020, but that moratorium expired in May of last year. Since then, tenants trying to stay in their homes have had to rely upon the CDC moratorium.
WHAT'S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?
Last year, the state's housing authority ran a $25 million rental and mortgage assistance program with federal CARES Act money. As of July 23, it had disbursed $6.8 million to 1,277 households out of about 7,000 applications. The agency says federal requirements have slowed the program down.
This year, South Carolina received $272 million in federal emergency rental assistance for 39 counties. The money can be used for up to 12 months of rent and utility payments dating back to March 2020; some applicants may also qualify for up to three months of future rent aid. Renters with demonstrated risk of homelessness or housing instability and household incomes of up to 80% of their county's median income qualify.
As of July 23, the state had distributed $1.4 million to 270 of the 9,200 eligible tenants who applied, with another 1,500 applications in review. The remaining 7,400 applications are missing documentation, said SC Housing spokesman Chris Winston, but the state has recently relaxed paperwork requirements and aims to take a second look at those applicants.
Seven of the state's largest county governments also received a total of $74 million in federal emergency rental assistance to distribute in their own programs. In Richland County, which received $12.5 million, 4,243 people had applied as of Tuesday. Administrators have approved 1,699 applications and distributed $9.6 million in funding so far.
HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?
How South Carolina is handling eviction hearings varies across the state's magistrate courts, which are organized on the county level. Some courts have adopted virtual hearings, while others have chosen not to or don't have the technology needed to implement online proceedings, said Adam Protheroe, an attorney with SC Appleseed. Courts have also implemented the CDC moratorium differently, Protheroe added. Some are not allowing any eviction filings, while others are allowing initial filings or even approving cases to go forward until the last step of processing the eviction and removing the tenant.
HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE'S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?
Though the state comprises mostly small and midsize cities and rural areas, affordable housing advocates say costs are growing faster than earnings for many renters and homeowners, and leisure and hospitality workers in places such as Charleston and Myrtle Beach are being priced out of living near where they work. The state's housing authority reports that 24% of all renters in the state, or more than 140,000 households, spend more than half their income on rent or have no income at all.
ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?
In Charleston County, one of the state's most populous, housing attorneys aren't expecting an "extraordinary wave" of evictions leading to homelessness as the moratorium expires, said Nicole Paluzzi of Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services. That's because many smaller landlords have already ejected tenants with month-to-month leases who could no longer afford to pay. Still, Paluzzi said she does expect people to be removed from their homes as corporate landlords that may have had more flexibility during the moratorium begin filing eviction cases.
One indication of the scope of the problem is census data showing 125,243 state residents concerned that they could be evicted over the next two months.