COLUMBIA — Fearing a “tsunami” of evictions when a federal moratorium expires in the coming days, South Carolina housing advocates are asking Gov. Henry McMaster to step in and extend the ban at the state level.
But McMaster said he has no plans to get involved when the federal halt on evictions ends on July 31, instead encouraging South Carolinians to take one of the many job openings in the state so they can pay their bills.
“Those moratoria have been in effect for many months now,” McMaster said. “It’s time for all of us to get back to work. That is the way to move forward.”
In a July 28 news conference outside the Statehouse, advocates from the nonprofit One Common Cause said they have been desperately trying to sound the alarm and get elected officials to find a way to stop what they expect to become a statewide crisis.
“We cannot afford to have this many people all across the state of South Carolina become homeless, and that’s what it looks like is going to happen,” said Sonya Davis-Lewis, the group’s spokeswoman. “The courts are going to be overwhelmed. Landlords are lining up already to serve eviction notices.”
Davis-Lewis said she could not predict exactly how many South Carolina residents would be faced with immediate eviction proceedings once the ban expires, but she said she expects it to be “a large number.”
She argued that McMaster’s decision to cut off enhanced federal unemployment benefits early at the end of June may have exacerbated the problem for those who are still out of work, and even those who have returned to work in recent months may have not made enough money yet to catch up on overdue bills.
But McMaster said he did not buy that argument.
“These emergency measures must end,” the governor said. “They have ended in South Carolina.”
A few states have extended their eviction moratoriums by a few weeks or months beyond the federal ban in a bid to help residents still struggling with rent, including California, Illinois, Minnesota, New York and Washington. But unlike South Carolina, those states are all led by Democratic governors and Legislatures.
The federal eviction ban, which the Centers for Disease Control first instituted in September in a bid to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, was initially set to expire at the end of June but was extended an additional month until July 31.
Groups representing landlords sued to overturn the ban, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it on a narrow 5-4 vote. That ruling was tenuous, however, as Justice Brett Kavanaugh said he only sided against preemptively ending the ban because it was already set to expire soon.
Some lawmakers at the federal level are now pressing President Joe Biden’s administration to again extend the ban, but it’s not clear whether that will happen. CDC director Rochelle Walensky said they intended July 31 to be the final extension date.
The crisis comes as South Carolina and its largest counties are still only gradually doling out hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds that can be used for rent and utility assistance.
SC Housing, which is in charge of $271.8 million of the funds for the state’s 39 smaller counties, has paid out just $1.4 million of the funds so far to 270 applicants, according to agency spokesman Chris Winston. An additional 1,500 applications are currently under review or processing, and 7,500 more are missing documentation.
The state’s seven largest counties received the federal funds directly. Some of them have been able to distribute their funds more quickly but still have at least a few million dollars left to spend.
Richland County has approved almost $10 million of its $12.5 million allotment to 1,744 applicants, according to spokeswoman Michaela Leung.
Charleston County has paid or committed to pay $8.4 million of the $12.4 million to over 1,700 households in their first round of funding, and they are slated to receive an extra $9.8 million, according to spokeswoman Kelsey Barlow.
And in Greenville County, 1,194 tenants and 368 landlords have received a total of $5.2 million worth of assistance out of the county’s $15.8 million allotment, with 370 more pending applications, according to spokesman Bob Mihalic.
As she’s travelled around to help struggling tenants in the state, Davis-Lewis said she expects the main reason why more applications for rental assistance have not been submitted is a lack of awareness about the program or internet access to learn more about it.
SC Housing has used a variety of methods to try to inform potential applicants about the funding, including texts, emails, TV and radio ads, billboards, social media and other forms of community outreach, Winston said.
The agency has also extended call center times in the evening to be more accessible to people without internet access, and they have recently been able to relax documentation requirements due to a shift in federal guidance, he added. Applicants can contact SC Housing at (803) 336-3420 or online at schousing.com.