Six short questions stand between struggling South Carolina homeowners and up to $36,000 in mortgage assistance.
The foreclosure-prevention organization SC HELP recently launched a newly redesigned website to make it easier for South Carolinians to see if they qualify for federal funds set aside to assist homeowners going through a period of financial hardship.
From the home page of the new website, SCHELP.gov, users can click the tab “Am I Eligible?” to access six questions providing instant feedback about eligibility and a link to the program application. The website directs those ineligible for assistance to information about other programs for which homeowners might qualify.
The website is a part of expanded efforts to connect homeowners with the nearly $300 million South Carolina received five years ago from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Hardest Hit Fund. The $7.6 billion fund came from payback of the Troubled Assets Relief Program money loaned to financial institutions when the housing bubble burst in 2008.
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SC HELP, a nonprofit established to distribute the money, has provided assistance to 5,530 South Carolina homeowners falling behind on their mortgages as of the end of May – 1,629 of them from the Midlands.
More than $66 million has been released, though that’s only about 22 percent of the total funds set aside.
Clayton Ingram, spokesman for SC HELP, said the organization has had trouble connecting with homeowners who could benefit from the program because financial hardship “potentially could hit anyone anytime.” It’s a problem they hope the website will help solve.
“When these things occur, time is of the essence, and the quicker we can identify those who need help and get their application under review, the better off everyone will be,” he said.
SC HELP has eased the eligibility requirements since the program started in order to reach more homeowners, and the organization also has increased the level of available assistance to $36,000 or 24 months. The program’s eligibility criteria covers homeowners affected by a range of factors out of their control, Ingram said, from loss of job and income due to the economic downturn to death of a spouse, divorce and catastrophic medical expenses.
Statewide, the foreclosure rate is slowing. The number of properties that were either in default, up for auction or bank owned dropped 11 percent to 3,528 in May from the same month a year ago, according to RealtyTrac.
Expanded outreach efforts begun by SC HELP during the spring, however, have been successful at increasing participation. The number of new accounts registered weekly more than doubled between the end of March and mid-May, Ingram said, and activity has continued to increase since the new website debuted about a month ago.
“This is showing that the need is still out there and we are reaching people,” he said.