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Free Katrina houses remain empty

Fannie Mae offered 1,500 homes rent-free for Katrina evacuees for a year and a half. But FEMA has not placed a single family in the homes: Why not? NBC's Lisa Myers investigates.

Nov. 23 — It's a handsome Atlanta home with all the modern perks: Five bedrooms, three baths, spacious, finished basement, nice view... even two fireplaces!

"As you can see, it's gorgeous and it's lovely, and it's ready to move in," says realtor William Murray as he leads NBC News on a tour.

The $300,000 home is one of 1,500 homes that Fannie Mae — the giant housing-finance company — generously offered to provide, rent-free for 18 months, to families left homeless by Katrina.

Though Fannie Mae offered these rent-free homes two months ago, FEMA has not placed a single family in any of them.

The homes are in nine states — Ala., Ark., Fla., Ga., La., Miss., Okla., Tenn. and Texas —where the need is the greatest.

NBC News showed one of the Fannie Mae homes in Atlanta to Rosella Joseph, who with her husband and four children have been living in hotels for two months.

"It really doesn't make sense to have houses available for families who need them and not give them to them," says Joseph.

A few days ago, an outraged Mississippi congressman asked FEMA what was going on.

"Well, we found out with our inquiry that FEMA has done nothing with the offer and said, 'Well, we just haven't gotten around to it," says Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

FEMA initially said there were potential privacy issues, that the privacy of Katrina families might be violated if prospective buyers want to inspect the Fannie Mae homes. But on Nov. 23 — after repeated inquiries from NBC News to both agencies — FEMA accepted Fannie Mae's offer. FEMA announced it had worked out its privacy concerns and will begin placing families in the Fannie Mae homes next week.

"It's only when you go public and shame FEMA into responding do you start getting answers," says Rep. Thompson.

It's those answer that could help 1,500 families during the holidays.