Few taking advantage of federal foreclosure assistance in SC

gmartin@islandpacket.comOctober 13, 2011 

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By most measures, South Carolina is one of the poorest states, and its unemployment rate is among the highest in the country. So when state officials received nearly $300 million from the federal government this year to aid residents struggling to avoid foreclosure, they figured the money would be in high demand.

But nine months after the U.S. Treasury awarded the money to give to qualified applicants, only about 600 homeowners have benefited.

Making people aware of the program has been a challenge, according to Clayton Ingram, a spokesman for the agency administering the money.

"We know there's a lot of need out there," said Ingram, "and our goal is to get the word out to everyone."

South Carolina was one of five states that qualified in 2010 for the Obama administration's "Hardest-Hit Fund," based on high unemployment rates.

In August, the state unemployment rate was 11.1 percent -- fourth worst in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That's down 1.1 percent from when the state was included in the Hardest-Hit Fund in March 2010.

The money is dispersed by the S.C. Homeownership and Employment Lending Program, a nonprofit division of the state Housing Finance and Development Authority.

Ingram says that since January, the program has received about 11,000 applications, of which 2,700 are completed and under review.

But that's only a fraction, he says, of what the state needs and what SC HELP has to offer.

"Everyone knows someone who has lost a job or can't make a car payment," said Ingram. "This is a temporary bridge while people get other means to be self-sufficient."

Based on current participation, Ingram estimates the money will last through 2017 and is capable of assisting 20,000 to 30,000 households. Aid per home is capped at $36,000. The numbers of applicants from Beaufort and Jasper counties were not immediately available when requested Thursday.

The low number of approved applicants isn't indicative of local interest in the program, according to Jennifer Sikes, director of counseling at Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Savannah Area, which operates an office in Beaufort.

The Beaufort location is one of about 20 regional offices that serve SC HELP applicants. Sikes said the office has more than 1,000 clients and had to hire a part-time assistant in August to help process applications.

Many of those applications, however, are insufficient or incomplete, according to Sikes.

SC HELP might expand to include owners of homes built by Habitat for Humanity affiliates who need help.

"We were surprised when we were excluded, but we're very hopeful that might change soon," said Patricia Carey Wirth, president of Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity. "Our residents deserve the same chance that people with Bank of America and Wells Fargo get."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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