Like so many other people, Wilhemena Bethea is grateful to have a job at a time when the unemployment rate hovers at around 9 percent. And, like many working people, she’s a medical emergency or other unexpected crisis away from having her financial situation thrown into chaos.
That’s what happened when her daughter needed surgery and, later, someone to help her recover at home. Bethea, who relocated from Dillon to Fort Mill three-and-a-half years ago, had to take a two-month, unpaid leave from her job as an operator on the LYNX Blue Line. The result was Bethea fell behind on her mortgage with Chase and even though she’s back to work, she doesn’t earn enough to catch up.
When Bethea saw a story in the local newspaper about the S.C. Homeownership and Employment Lending Program, which provides mortgage assistance to the unemployed and underemployed, she thought that would be the break she needed.
It didn’t work out that way.
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“They told me my hardship was not great enough,” she said. “I called back and the lady said my income is too high and how can that be when [for two months] I had no income?”
Tanya Dash, housing counseling coordinator for S.C. Legal Services, which assists SC HELP in administering the program, couldn’t comment directly on why Bethea was turned down, but explained that a formula is used to determine eligibility.
“Some people may be declined if they are not currently receiving unemployment benefits or they had a reduction [in pay] but not to those percentages. But everyone who has been declines can ask for a reconsideration or appeal.”
Although the program can help those in arrears become current on their mortgage and provide monthly payment assistance for up to two years, officials urge those who are in danger of falling behind due to layoffs, involuntary unemployment connected to illness or other factors, including divorce, to apply right away.
“If you meet the criteria, don’t wait. You do not have to be delinquent to apply,” SC HELP Director Matt Rivers said. “There may be a way we can help.”
The program is funded with South Carolina’s portion – about $300 million – of TARP loans repaid to the U.S. Treasury. It’s administered through the S.C. Housing Authority and there is no cost to apply.
Homeowners who receive help are not obligated to pay back any of the money, which goes directly to the lenders that hold the mortgage.
Dash said the program has evolved to include assistance for those who are working, but earn less money because of furloughs, reduced hours or pay cuts, as well as residents who are – or were – self employed. The threshold is a 20 percent reduction for those employed by a company they don’t own and 30 percent for people who are self-employed.
Both Dash and Rivers stress that no one should assume they eligible or not and urge anyone in need to apply and speak with a counselor.
“They changed the guidelines and our counselors are finding people who have been turned down, but now may now be eligible,” Dash said. “We at all Legal Services are actively looking.
Dash also said that she was going to have a counselor contact Bethea to revisit her application.
In the meantime, Bethea said she has been talking with Chase about possibly modifying her loan.
SC HELP went online in January with the goal of keeping eligible South Carolina residents in their homes. More than 1,200 residents have been approved so far, including nearly 100 in York and Lancaster counties. To qualify, homeowners need to meet certain criteria and supply documentation, but the bar is purposefully low. A homeowner doesn’t even have to be delinquent on his or her mortgage to qualify.
To fill out an application with SC HELP, visit scmortgagehelp.com or call 1-855-435-7472.