A slow-moving South Carolina rental and mortgage relief program is causing friction between state and local agencies while leaving qualified tenants at risk of eviction.

The SC Stay program, administered by the State Housing Finance and Development Authority, opened to low-income applicants for just a few days in February.

About $25 million in CARES Act funding was made available to the authority through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide up to six months of rental or mortgage assistance to individuals and families meeting certain requirements including lost wages as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But to date, less than one-third of that funding has been distributed to applicants and their landlords, according to SC Housing spokesman Chris Winston, who couldn’t say when they’re expecting to be finished dispersing the rest.

Winston said the authority received about 7,000 applicants, 4,000-5,000 of which were deemed to be initially eligible, and they’ve dispersed $1.4 million with another $6.3 million in the final stage of payment processing to a total of 1,300 applicants, as of last Friday.

The applicants and their landlords, meanwhile, are getting restless with the continued wait, and much of that criticism is falling on the local agencies assisting SC Housing in the processing of those applications.

Horry County was initially responsible for processing the applications of its residents, but transferred that duty in mid-March to Eastern Carolina Housing Authority because it has more case management resources, according to county spokeswoman Kelly Moore.

ECHO was already processing SC Stay applications for residents in Georgetown, Florence, Lee and Marlboro counties, but Horry County had more applicants than the other four combined, according to Julie Meaney, ECHO’s director of community data solutions.

Her team has helped process all those applications, but now they’re just sitting there, as Meaney explained about 135 eligible applicants are just waiting and haven’t heard anything in nearly a month.

She noted some tenants who may have been eligible when they applied in February have self-resolved, which is a positive, but in other instances, landlords that were willing to work with their tenants are threatening to pull out and file evictions.

“It’s damaging my team’s morale and the relationships we’ve built with the community, and specifically the landlords,” Meaney said.

Joey Smoak, executive director of ECHO, said they’ve spent years building those relationships with landlords, which are critical to find housing opportunities for all their clients, and these issues are destroying a lot of that good will they’ve built.

“The saddest part is the money is just sitting there,” he said.

While frustrated by the delays, Meaney said ECHO doesn’t want to stop participating because that would just ensure Horry County residents have no chance at receiving needed assistance.

Winston noted the authority has up to three years to distribute the $25 million, but the goal is to get the funds where they’re needed as quickly as possible. He said the delays can be linked to a variety of factors stemming from strict HUD guidelines that would require his agency pay the federal government back if guidelines aren’t followed.

Winston pointed to smaller landlords needing to register as state vendors, applicants’ changing financial situations and missing paperwork as common issues leading to stalled applications.

He added that SC Housing recently increased staffing levels to eight full-time employees devoted to the program as they hope to process the outstanding applications more rapidly.

Note: The SC Stay program is completely separate from SC Stay Plus, another rental assistance program through SC Housing that is currently open to applications. Please contact reporters at sneditors@thesunnews.com if you’re a tenant or landlord waiting on funds through SC Stay.

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Investigative projects reporter David Weissman joined The Sun News in 2018 after three years working at The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania, and he’s earned South Carolina Press Association and Keystone Media awards for his investigative reports on topics including health, business, politics and education. He graduated from University of Richmond in 2014.

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