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United Way of SC tackles rural lag in pandemic housing assistance

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Scott Morgan
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South Carolina Public Radio
In towns like Blackville, in Barnwell County, there aren't a lot of places people gather. A statewide United Way initiative through the SC Housing & Finance Authority wants to tap into these few, but valuable resources.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct deadline date (Dec. 31) for applying for housing assistance.

By this point just about a year ago, COVID job losses had taken hefty bites out of incomes. It didn’t take long for huge numbers of renters to lose their ability to pay their landlords – which, of course, meant that landlords were losing hefty bites of their incomes.

The federal government gave the South Carolina Housing & Finance Authority control of a $272 million pot of rental assistance money (the SC Stay program, which was quickly retooled as SC Stay Plus), aimed at helping the state’s 39 non-metro counties. The seven metro counties each got their own, separate pools of rental assistance funding from the federal government.

The trouble wasn’t that the funds weren’t available, it was that people had a hard time getting to the money. This was (and remains) especially true in rural communities, where Ferlecia Cuthberson, director of philanthropy at the United Way of Barnwell, Allendale, and Bamberg counties, says SC Stay Plus reps were helpful, but only to the people who could get to information sessions as they came along.

“There were opportunities at the library where representative may come in and be there on Tuesdays from eight to 12,” Cuthberson says. “It was that same kind of rural norm that the state knew that and the library of representatives knew that, but not necessarily the individuals who would need the services.”

To address this, SC Housing asked the United Way Association of South Carolina to be a liaison between community level, local nonprofit and community resource entities. The aim, says Cuthberson: to have regular, easily accessed information ready for residents and landlords who could benefit from SC Stay Plus – which is still a thing, until Dec. 31.

The effort is part education, part assistance with filing, and part access to connectivity, Cuthberson says – the last being something rural communities in this state still don’t always have reliable access to, and something that the gravity of which became immediately apparent as the pandemic settled in.

Cuthberson says United Ways are helping to get the word out that SC Stay Plus is still open through partner agencies including churches and schools – both ubiquitous and both woven deeply into the fabric of rural communities.

“In our very small towns, some of them where there's not even a red light, the one place in that community where there's going to be a machine where you can scan and upload those documents, or even have the wifi capacity to do it, are those faith-based institutions,” she says. “[And] one thing that is kind of consistent in a small community is that the community revolves around the education system.”

Cuthberson says the school districts are on board around the state and will share information about rental assistance in their newsletters and other student take-home correspondence.

To find out more about SC Stay Plus and other ways to find rental assistance, click here.

You can also visit SC Housing for homeowner mortgage assistance information by clicking here.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.