Government money is on the way to help financially struggling South Carolina residents save their homes.
U.S. Treasury officials approved a series of homeowner rescue programs that will spread federal grants -- from a few thousand dollars up to $36,000 -- to homeowners across the state who risk losing their property to foreclosure.
As many as 15,000 homeowners could get money through what's called the South Carolina Homeownership and Employment Lending Program, or S.C. Help, a $138 million program made available because of the state's dismal employment climate.
Housing officials say the help can't come fast enough.
Phones rang off the hook on Wednesday at the S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority, the Columbia-based agency that proposed the housing-rescue programs, after residents heard about the approval.
And North Charleston-based nonprofit Family Services Inc. is working with more than 900 homeowners statewide who can't afford their homes and have asked for help negotiating with their mortgage companies.
"It's going to make a world of difference," said Debbie Kidd, who oversees foreclosure counseling for Family Services.
Still, homeowners won't be able to apply for the grant money until October, nearly three years after the economy slipped into recession.
Assistant Treasury Secretary for Financial Stability Herb Allison defended the Obama administration's time frame, saying officials began working on housing rescue programs weeks after the president took office.
"We're rolling (the programs) out as rapidly as we can," he said.
As the economic recession spiralled, struggling homeowners increasingly became affected not by the risky mortgages that helped fuel the financial meltdown but by the loss of income that followed. This later inspired the $600 million Hardest Hit Fund, which will funnel federal money to South Carolina homeowners.
"We worked on designing the Hardest Hit program (because) we saw this crisis isn't only national, it is local," Allison said.
The program also made money available to North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Oregon -- all selected because they had high concentrations of unemployed workers.
South Carolina's jobless rate crossed into double-digits 18 months ago. It was at 10.7 percent for June, according to the latest figures.
Until now, 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.
To local housing counselors, the money gives borrowers more negotiating power with their lenders.
Family Services estimates 40 percent of its struggling homeowners either lost their jobs or now make less money than before the economic recession. The agency's team of foreclosure counselors, who operate on a separate pool of federal grant money, negotiate lower payments with mortgage lenders.
"If you don't have sufficient income coming into your house to make the mortgage payment, the lenders aren't willing to work with you," Kidd said. "They'll tell us to call back when the homeowner has a job or a better job."
The bulk of the state's allocated money -- about $79 million -- will help qualified homeowners keep up with home payments for up to two years while they look for a job or work in jobs that pay too little. Agency officials estimate they could help 6,000 South Carolina residents in that situation, providing an average payment of $15,000 toward each eligible mortgage.
Another major part of the program will provide one-time grants of up to $10,000 to homeowners who fell behind on their mortgage after a job loss but have since found a new job.
In some cases, lenders won't allow a homeowner to continue making mortgage payments once they fall behind, sending them further into debt while late fees pile up.
Most programs will require homeowners to prove they had kept up on mortgage payments before the economic slowdown.
"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 previously released statement from the Columbia-based housing authority.
Smaller amounts of money will be available for homeowners who owe more than their property is worth and could use a one-time grant to help make a loan modification or refinancing work.
Homeowners who can't ultimately save their properties may be able to apply for a grant that will help them "gracefully exit home ownership," according to program details. That $6.5 million pot of money could help a homeowner work out a short sale or provide money for a renter's deposit.
S.C. Commerce officials originally wanted to use some of the money for job training and business-recruitment efforts, but federal officials said the money needed to go toward housing programs.
Wednesday's approval means that state housing officials can begin creating a nonprofit agency to oversee the programs. They will need a board of directors and a staff that can handle the thousands of grant requests the agency expects to receive, spokesman Clayton Ingram said.
The program itself will cost $24 million to create and administer, according to a breakout of proposed administrative expenses.