They moved to Myrtle Beach after son was punched in NYC. But now they’re nearly homeless
Rafaela Rivera became a New York media darling last year after tackling a man who punched her 4-year-old son in Times Square. Affectionately dubbed “Mama Bear” by The New York Post, she and her family moved to Myrtle Beach, in part, to seek a safer, more stable living situation.
But nearly five months into their move, the Riveras on the verge of homelessness, unable to find a suitable home with a landlord willing to rent to them with their Section 8 housing voucher.
The family has never had trouble in other states using their voucher, which offer federal rental assistance to low-income families, but their situation is a common struggle in the Myrtle Beach area, according to Myrtle Beach Housing Authority, the local agency responsible for administering the vouchers.
Landlords don’t want vouchers
Finding available, qualified housing has long been a struggle for voucher recipients in Myrtle Beach and South Carolina as a whole, but the current dearth of units is unprecedented, according to Carol McCall, operations manager for the authority.
McCall explained that voucher recipients are responsible for finding their own housing, which must be priced within an area’s market rate and pass a safety inspection. Typically, recipients have two months to find a viable unit once they’re awarded the voucher, and the authority will grant extensions up to two months if the family shows it’s actively trying.
But MBHA is currently offering extensions up to a year past that two-month deadline because of the current scarcity, McCall told The Sun News.
“We don’t have an easy answer to give to anybody,” she said.
Rivera said she and her family had fallen in love with the Myrtle Beach area while visiting on vacation last year, but she wishes she’d been known before moving how impossible it would be to find a home.
Bouncing between various one-bedroom hotels with her husband and two sons, Rivera said she’s contacted dozens of local realtors and landlords on a daily basis only to be told they don’t accept housing vouchers, even if the unit for rent is within the market rate.
The housing authority is constantly pleading for more landlords to accept vouchers, which guarantees the rent gets paid, McCall said, but some landlords just don’t want to deal with the paperwork and others have negative misconceptions.
“There’s just a stigma,” McCall said. “That they’re just poor people, bad tenants ... and it’ll lower property values, but that’s not true. They’re just people, no worse or better than any other tenant.”
Rental assistance in Horry County
Under the voucher program, tenants pay 30% of their gross monthly adjusted income, while the federal funds cover the rest.
The Riveras’ only income at the moment is a disability check received by Rafaela’s husband, Federico, who was injured in a serious motorcycle accident decades ago, they said.
Families can maintain vouchers the rest of their lives as long as they follow program guidelines and fall under income limits — a common case among Horry County’s service industry workers, McCall explained. The Myrtle Beach Housing Authority currently oversees 963 vouchers in use and can issue another 68.
Many of those unused vouchers are tied to families like the Riveras who are in the midst of lengthy, unsuccessful searches. That number is bound to increase in the coming weeks after Myrtle Beach city officials pushed a downtown affordable housing complex, where 31 voucher recipients are living, to kick out its tenants over a business license dispute.
The Myrtle Beach Housing Authority — which covers most of eastern Horry County, including Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and Carolina Forest — typically holds lotteries for voucher applicants every 3-4 years, McCall said. The most recent lottery was held in February 2022, when they received about 4,000 applicants, and 1,000 of those were placed on a waiting list, with more than 700 still on that list, according to McCall.
Most of the western part of the county is covered by the Conway Housing Authority. Vouchers are not accepted within North Myrtle Beach city confines, which may be exacerbating the housing supply issues, because city officials have long refused requests to join the Myrtle Beach Housing Authority.
Mayor Marilyn Hatley told The Sun News in 2021 that city council would discuss the possibility of creating their own housing authority that could administer vouchers, but council meeting minutes show only a discussion of state housing authority laws during an executive session with no public discussion or action considered. Hatley didn’t respond to a request for an update, and a city spokesman did not provide a requested update prior to publication.
Time to move again
The Riveras have exhausted nearly $15,000 since moving to Myrtle Beach between paying for hotel stays, storage fees and application fees for potential homes, they said.
“It feels like we’re getting scammed,” Rafaela Rivera said of all the application fees she’s paid only to find out the landlord won’t accept the housing voucher.
With their savings dwindling and the hotels moving to pricier daily rates as tourism season approaches, the Riveras are now considering another move to California, where they’ve previously lived with their housing voucher.
Orange County, California’s housing authority already sent them a 24-page list of landlords and realtors known to accept housing vouchers. Federico Rivera compared that to a list of realtors the Myrtle Beach Housing Authority gave them that only filled about half the page. All the names had been crossed off as Rafaela contacted them with no luck, she said.
Myrtle Beach Housing Authority used to have a more robust list, McCall said, but landlords kept contacting them to tell them to take them off the list because they had no available units.
Federico Rivera worried that another move is going to be emotional for their children, who have made friends and are nearing the end of the school year.
“But we have to go, we have no choice,” he said, before singing the chorus of “Hit the Road, Jack.”