For 60 years, family wondered

John Simonetti sent his family this photograph of himself in uniform from a stint in England, signing it simply, 'Love John.' When the family received a document stating that Simonetti was dead, they kept it folded next to his photo.

Thousands of South Carolina homeowners who can't afford their residences after a job loss or pay cut could get money to stay in their homes under a proposal put forth by the S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority.

The agency, which qualified to receive $138 million because of the state's double-digit unemployment rate, plans to create a handful of homeowner rescue programs as early as this fall.

Nearly 13,000 households could get money to put toward either mortgage payments or, in cases where the foreclosure can't be resolved, a security deposit for a rental home, according to agency estimates.

Until this point, homeowners have had access to free foreclosure counseling paid for with federal money. But those cash-strapped residents had few options when it came to finding funds to wipe away accrued debts or to help make monthly payments during a job search.

Through a program called the South Carolina Homeownership and Employment Lending Program, or SC HELP, financially stressed homeowners will be able to apply for grant money. Agency officials said applicants will have to demonstrate that their financial troubles resulted from circumstances beyond their control, such as an economy-related job loss or death of a spouse.

"Those borrowers who have demonstrated poor or irresponsible credit and debt management, mismanagement of personal budgets or stripping equity from their home for nonessential purposes will be ineligible for this program," according to a housing authority statement.

The state submitted its plan Tuesday, giving U.S. Treasury Department officials 90 days to review and approve it. If the funding is OK'd, homeowners statewide will be able to apply for the programs online or by telephone.

State housing officials said they would earmark the bulk of the money, roughly $80 million, toward mortgage assistance, which would help pay an unemployed person's home loan while they seek work. To qualify, the recipient must have been current on their payments up until their job loss, and they must be receiving unemployment benefits.

On average, homeowners would receive $15,000 through this program.

About $12 million would be targeted to homeowners who were unemployed but have since found a source of income. Residents of certain counties could receive up to $10,000 to puttoward debts accrued while out of work. In those instances, lenders must agree to forgive any late fees.

Another group of homeowners could ask for money to put toward a second mortgage that's delinquent and holding up the modification of a primary mortgage. The average homeowner in this situation could receive about $6,000.

State officials want to make $5 million available to families who can't save their homes and need to transition into rental housing. That program could help up to 2,000 families statewide.

South Carolina is among 10 states that were awarded money through what's called the Hardest Hit Fund, a $2.1 billion pool meant to stabilize housing markets in the most economically distressed states.

State housing officials spent nearly three months coming up with the proposals. Originally, they planned to allocate a portion of the money toward job creation efforts through the cash-strapped state Department of Commerce.

"Not having seen the guidelines, Commerce's intention was to use the funds for workforce ... training," said spokeswoman Kara Borie in an e-mail.

Treasury's revisions to the guidelines made it clear that those types of programs wouldn't qualify for the money. Still, the state housing agency asked Treasury officials in their application to consider job programs.

Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549 or kstech@postandcourier.com.