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FEMA-paid hotel rooms to end Dec. 1

FEMA will stop paying for hotel rooms for most evacuees of hurricanes Katrina and Rita on Dec. 1.
/ Source: The Associated Press

FEMA will stop paying for hotel rooms for most evacuees of hurricanes Katrina and Rita on Dec. 1, officials said Tuesday as the agency pushed victims to find more stable housing.

Housing advocates said they fear that won’t be enough time for an estimated 53,000 families — mostly in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi — who remain in hotels.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had previously set the December deadline as a potential goal to have evacuees out of hotels and into travel trailers, mobile homes or apartments until they find permanent homes. Tuesday’s announcement marked the first time the agency said it would cease directly paying for hotel rooms that have cost FEMA $274 million since the storms struck.

FEMA granted exceptions to evacuees in hotels in Louisiana and Mississippi, where there is a shortage of housing. Evacuees in those states have until Jan. 7 to find homes, said David Garratt, FEMA’s acting director of recovery. He said 9,830 households remain in hotels in Louisiana and 2,508 in Mississippi.

‘Longer-term homes’
“There are still too many people living in hotel rooms, and we want to help them get into longer-term homes before the holidays,” FEMA Acting Director R. David Paulison said in a statement. “Across the country, there are readily available, longer-term housing solutions for these victims that can give greater privacy and stability than hotel and motel rooms.”

“Those affected by these storms should have the opportunity to become self-reliant again and reclaim some normalcy in their lives,” Paulison said.

After Dec. 1, most hurricane evacuees who aren’t ready to leave hotels will have to pay the costs out of pocket — either with FEMA rental housing aid they receive or from their own funds.

Katrina hit on Aug. 29, followed by Rita on Sept. 24.

In Houston, Mayor Bill White demanded that FEMA grant a similar extension to the city as it moves 19,158 evacuees out of city hotels.

“We have moved more evacuees out of hotels than any other city has ever had in hotels,” White said in a statement. “So we encourage those new to it to ask us, not tell us, how to do it.”

The hotel program marked FEMA’s second step in finding homes for hundreds of thousands of evacuees displaced after the storms. Over the last month, FEMA has moved 8,748 people out of emergency shelters and into hotels and other transitional housing, Garratt said. As of Tuesday, 2,491 evacuees remain in shelters, down from a high of 321,000, he said.

Also by Dec. 1, thousands of evacuees who receive FEMA housing aid in vouchers issued though state or local authorities will have to sign a rental lease to remain eligible for the funding. Three months later, on March 1, FEMA will end the voucher program and send housing aid directly to evacuees who qualify.

Additionally, the six-month leases for evacuees living on cruise ships will end March 1, Garratt said.

Housing advocates said that FEMA has not given evacuees enough time to find homes and sign leases — a process that can take months in rental markets already nearing capacity.

“It’s a hell of a time to be telling people that they’re kicked out a week after the holiday,” said Doug Culkin, executive vice president of the National Apartment Association. He was referring to next week’s Thanksgiving holiday.

‘Just horrible’
“The coordination of this has just been horrible,” Culkin said. “And we’re just concerned that a lot of people aren’t going to realize the predicament they’re in until too late. People are not going to have adequate time to make plans.”

In the last month, FEMA has deployed “strike teams” of federal, state and local authorities to meet with evacuees and discuss their long-term housing goals — and how to reach them. Now, FEMA will assign 3,000 social workers to manage evacuees’ cases — a $66 million contract with the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

So far, FEMA says it has provided $1.2 billion in transitional housing assistance to more than 500,000 households displaced by the hurricanes.

The Red Cross had not seen details of the plan Tuesday, but spokesman Michael Spencer said “the time has passed for emergency housing.”

“Interim housing is the responsibility of the state and federal government, and we have to assume they have a plan in place,” he said.

FEMA officials still don’t know how many evacuees in hotels have registered with the agency for housing aid, and it’s possible that many will not qualify for direct rental assistance, Garratt said. Those who will not will be referred to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for help, he said.