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Emergency rental assistance coming, demand uncertain

  • Updated
Emergency rental assistance coming, demand uncertain

Berkeley County announced that Federal Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) will soon be available to county residents. The assistance comes from a $6.89 million grant from the U.S. Treasury Department. The money, for those who qualify, will be used for rent payments, utilities and home energy costs.

The county announced, informational flyers on the program will soon be mailed out with Berkeley County Water and Sanitation bills. An application process will then be conducted and each one will be assigned a number, those numbered applications will be randomly sorted and a lottery will determine how long it may take to get assistance.

The application lottery system may be the most efficient process because organizers aren’t sure how many residents will apply and qualify. Those putting together the plan to distribute the funds said the amount to be received has not been determined either and may have to be capped, depending on the number of applications received.

When the ERA plan was being discussed at a March 8, county council meeting, the grant administrator told council members, “We have no idea what the demand will be.” But based on numbers from Trident United Way, the requests for assistance will be numerous.

The charitable organization reported at one point in 2020 calls to their 211 Helpline, which is used to direct callers to agencies that can offer help, had gone up 800% once utility shut-offs began. One year since South Carolina schools and businesses halted due to COVID-19, more recent numbers from Trident United Way show lasting impacts. The 211 Helpline calls are still up 63% for February 2021 compared with the same time last year.

“We are experiencing higher levels of calls for rent and electric assistance and we’re seeing large bills,” said Katie Reams, the Community Resource Coordinator for 211 Services. “Forty percent of the calls we received from Berkeley County were specifically for assistance with paying your electric bill, 17percent of those calls were for assistance with paying rent.” 

The large bills Reams mentioned are not what is typically seen. Normally people report being behind in the hundreds of dollars, she said, now callers are behind in the thousands. The large debt creates a challenge for the over 450 assistance agencies in the 211 Helpline database that serve the tri-county.

“Can the agencies handle the influx of calls that they are receiving and are they able to assist every client? No they can not.” Reams said.

Those applying for Emergency Rental Assistance in Berkeley County must meet certain criteria. In a statement administrators said only renters living in the county can apply and homeowners do not qualify.

Those applying must qualify for unemployment or have experienced a reduction in household income, have significant costs, or experienced a financial hardship due to COVID-19.

Renters have to demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability and have a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median. The County announced an application period will begin Monday, March 29. The deadline to apply is 5 p.m. on April 16.

The county statement said, individuals are encouraged to apply online at BerkeleyCountySC.gov. They can also call the 24-hour Emergency Rental Assistance Hotline at 843-377-8507. Paper applications will also be available if requested.

The county said the lottery will happen on April 19, that’s when all the applications will be randomly sorted. Results of the lottery will be published on the County’s website along with estimated timeframes for assistance.

The county’s announcement stated the ERA program will provide the federal funds for rent, back rent, utilities and home energy costs, and utilities and home energy costs arrears. The statement said all funds will be paid directly to landlords and utility providers. Rental and utility arrears can be covered back to March 2020, and applicants may receive up to three months of future assistance at a time.

More financial help is on the way. Berkeley County is expected to receive an additional $5 million in federal funds for the program, due to the recent passing of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 Relief Bill. Information on those funds will be made available soon.