When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in South Carolina over a year ago, housing advocates predicted that economic turmoil would trigger a mass wave of evictions. A federal ban on evictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control in September has helped keep the problem at bay, until now.
With the CDC moratorium set to expire on Saturday, thousands of renters across the state could lose their housing. Though the moratorium has been extended several times before, the CDC stated that July 31 would be the final deadline.
“There’s going to be a lot of people that end up either homeless or five families living on top of each other,” said Sonya Lewis from One Common Cause, a Columbia-based social justice organization.
Though the moratorium did not put a full stop on evictions, (an investigation from The State and The Sun News found several loopholes that allowed landlords to evict tenants in certain instances), for many it was a last line of defense against homelessness.
“It gave people time to stabilize their income and keep them housed while they figured out their finances,” said Nicole Paluzzi from Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services. “But some were able to rebound faster than others.”
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that while renters nationwide are getting back on their feet, for those in South Carolina the situation is getting worse.
A survey taken in the first week of July found that 56% of South Carolina renters were very likely to have to leave their homes due to eviction in the next two months. That’s compared to just 16% in the first week of June .
Sue Berkowitz from the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center said the Gov. Henry McMaster’s recent decision to halt additional unemployment benefits has made it harder for some tenants to pay off back rent.
“While before, people may have been able to keep up because of that extra help, they’re now finding that they’re getting behind and suddenly scrambling.”
There are still millions of dollars of federal rent assistance available through a statewide program being run by SC Housing as well as several countywide programs, but many tenants will not receive that money before the moratorium ends.
As of July 26, Richland County had received 4,243 applications for rent assistance but only 1,666 applications had been approved, according to spokeswoman Michaela Leung.
As of July 27, the statewide program had received 9,200 qualified applications and only 270 had been paid out, according to SC Housing spokesman Chris Winston.
Lewis, whose group has helped 85 people apply for assistance through both the state program and Richland County’s program, said only around 50 of them have received the money so far.
“Many of our people have been waiting for months on end,” she said. “There has to be a quicker way to help get this money out because without it people are going to end up on the street.”
Winston said SC Housing has recently taken several steps to speed up the application process, including eliminating certain documentation requirements. He noted that even if tenants are forced out of their apartments, the money can be used to cover emergency housing at a hotel, moving costs, security deposits for a new apartment and more.
“Our focus has been on an eviction preventive measure, but now that we’re looking at more people being displaced, we’re shifting to allow people to know all the options that are available.”