To learn more

The best way to find out if you qualify is to go online to scmortgagehelp.com and fill out the check-the-box “Am I eligible?” questions. All SC Help applications must be submitted online, but those with questions can call 855-435-7472.

Here’s one of the biggest financial mysteries that I have come across in South Carolina.

Why aren’t people who are struggling to pay their mortgages applying for free financial assistance from SC HELP? The state literally has money to give away, and people aren’t asking for it.

During the peak of the housing meltdown and foreclosure crisis, the federal government gave South Carolina $295 million to help people facing problems paying their mortgages because of unemployment and other financial hardships. The S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority then created the SC Homeownership and Employment Lending Program, or HELP.

The program is incredibly generous. Homeowners can get up to $36,000 in assistance, there are no income limitations, and there are no costs to apply.

You don’t have to be in foreclosure to get assistance — heck, you don’t even have to be behind on your mortgage payments. You do have to have a financial hardship that’s making it hard to keep current on your mortgage, such as unemployment, underemployment, divorce, catastrophic health care costs or the death of a spouse.

Those criteria should cover a great number of people in South Carolina, but here’s the thing: The SC HELP program has been running for two years and nine months, and has distributed less than $73 million of the funds. In Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties combined, just 879 households have received assistance.

And that’s the mystery.

SC HELP offers two types of assistance with mortgages, and households can qualify for both. They are:

Monthly Payment Assistance: SC HELP will make the monthly mortgage payment directly to the bank while the homeowner seeks employment or a return to self-sufficiency. As of June, 3,084 households received this assistance, and the median amount was $7,394.

Direct Loan Assistance: Borrowers who have fallen behind on mortgage payments can get funds to make the loan current.

In both cases, the assistance is treated as a loan against the property, but there are no payments and there’s no interest, and the loan is forgiven if the homeowner remains in the property for five years.

If a homeowner loses the property in a short sale (selling it for less than is owed with the bank’s approval), or a deed-in-lieu-of-foreclosure, SC HELP can provide up to $5,000 to help the former homeowner with expenses for moving and getting set up in a rented home.

The people I’ve spoken with at SC HELP believe the program isn’t more widely used because folks don’t know about it, or they’re in denial about their situation, or too proud to accept help, or they’re having trouble sorting out legitimate mortgage assistance programs from fake ones. “People either think this is another scam, or they have been burned already,” Clayton Ingram of SC HELP told me.

And it would be easy to get confused. People facing mortgage problems can be overwhelmed, trying to decipher the different federal assistance programs and the bank-run programs, while at the same time, the predators move in like sharks that smell blood, pitching assistance scams that separate people from the last of their money.

If anyone wants you to pay them money to help solve your loan problem, it’s probably a scam.

There are some cases where people can’t get assistance from SC HELP. They include:

Homeowners in an active bankruptcy case.

Mobile home owners whose loans are not actually mortgages.

Those whose loan servicers are not participating in the program, the largest of which is TD Bank.

Statewide, the majority of people who received assistance from SC HELP had fallen behind on their mortgage payments due to unemployment.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or dslade@postand courier.com.