WASHINGTON -- 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.
"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.