For the past three months, Dorothy Pearson has spent most evenings either in front of a computer screen or behind the wheel of her Chevy Trailblazer, scouring Richland and Lexington County neighborhoods for her family’s next home.
The 42-year-old single mother estimates she has put hundreds of miles on the SUV that way since her family was evicted for failing to come up with rent.
The eviction was one of several “dominoes” that fell after the historic Oct. 4 storm, Pearson said.
First, her children’s schools closed for a week. Pearson missed work to take care of her 13-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, which meant she couldn’t afford rent that month.
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She was evicted in December, joining the more than 11,000 South Carolina residents who have left their homes because of the flooding. For Pearson and many others in the Midlands, the road to resettlement has been bumpy.
“It’s so difficult finding a place,” said Pearson, who now lives in a two-bedroom apartment at the St. Lawrence Place transitional housing shelter.
Local housing leaders have said the storm exacerbated the existing shortage of low-cost housing. More than six months later, they say the situation has improved little, if at all.
“There’s still a whole lot of people out there who are displaced,” said Brian Huskey, executive director of the Midlands Housing Trust Fund. “I think it’s going to be a long road to recovery.”
Others see the same thing.
“From my experience, it has not gotten better,” said Melani Miller, director of program services at The Salvation Army of the Midlands, one of several organizations helping residents displaced by the flooding.
Some families are only now moving out of their homes because of flood-related issues, such as outbreaks of black mold, Miller said. Others, she said, have overstayed their welcome with friends and family and now are looking for new lodging.
The stories have a familiar refrain, she said. “At first a sister said, ‘Come on, bring your family. You can live with me for a while.’ Well, that time is up. It’s time to get out.”
Finding available rental housing has been hard for some families. Pearson said she has spent countless hours looking through listings on her laptop, trying to find homes within the Richland 2 school district, where her children are currently schooled.
It doesn’t help, she said, that heightened demand seems to have driven rental rates higher.
Rates for some rentals have risen about $150 per month since the flooding, according to Bill Taber, director of crisis assistance at Cooperative Ministry, a nonprofit that has helped flood-displaced victims pay for first month’s rents and security deposits.
And for most flood-displaced residents, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is no longer helping with those costs.
Just 383 of the nearly 11,400 South Carolina households that received FEMA rental assistance are still getting aid. Seventy of them are in Richland County, and 21 in Lexington County, according to state Emergency Management Division spokesman Derrec Becker.
FEMA data shows that residents on average received a little more than two months worth of rental assistance.
Pearson, who never received FEMA help, said driving through neighborhoods at first was exciting, but that rental rates quickly made it discouraging.
“I see plenty out here that I would like to live in, but I can’t afford it,” Pearson said.
The challenge was enough that Pearson recently decided to give up the search altogether. Instead, Pearson said, she will pursue homeownership, rather than “throwing my money away renting.”
Pearson said she will work with an agent from the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America to find and purchase a home. But until she can get back on her feet, she and her family will stay at St. Lawrence Place.
“There’s been a lot of adapting,” she said. “It’s been a humbling experience.”