The Federal Emergency Management Agency yesterday warned an estimated 150,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in government-subsidized hotels that they have until Dec. 1 to find other housing before it stops paying for their rooms.
The announcement effectively starts the clock ticking toward a new exodus of Gulf Coast storm victims who have been living rent-free in 5,700 hotels in 51 states and U.S. territories under the $273 million program.
Under FEMA's decision, the evacuees will have 15 days to lease apartments, make other arrangements or begin paying their own bills. Many families will be eligible for as much as $2,358 for three months' rental assistance from FEMA, payments that may be extended for as long as 18 months.
Families in 12,338 hotel rooms in Louisiana and Mississippi -- nearly one-fourth of the 53,894 total subsidized by FEMA -- may get a reprieve. Because of those states' devastated housing stocks, officials may seek extensions of hotel aid two weeks at a time until Jan. 7, at the discretion of the top FEMA official in each state, officials said.
The deadline will fall hardest in Texas, where 19,734 hotel rooms are occupied by Katrina evacuees, and Georgia, where they are housed in about 8,900 rooms.
Coming three months after Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall, the phaseout of the hotel program marks the latest effort by FEMA to manage the largest national housing crisis since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It follows criticism of the cost and management of efforts to place people in cruise ships, mobile homes and trailers.
FEMA had set the deadline four weeks ago and discussed it publicly with the media. Yesterday was the first time that the agency formally released its plan to move evacuees out of hotels and emphasized the looming deadline to them.
David Garratt, acting director of FEMA's recovery division, said the agency has begun to notify displaced families. He said FEMA issued a news release, released a public service announcement, directed a contractor to slip fliers under the hotel room doors of evacuees and yesterday began to contact people by phone or in person.
"As of the close of business on Nov. 30, 2005, FEMA will no longer be subsidizing hotel and motel leases or rents for individuals," Garratt said. "We'll be working hard in our case management program . . . with those individuals and helping them establish the ability to manage their lives in a temporary housing environment on their own, with or without assistance."
FEMA has awarded $66 million to two organizations to use 3,000 case managers to help move families into apartments if they sign leases by Dec. 1. The agency set up a nationwide housing referral service, open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST daily, at 1-800-762-8740 (TTY 1-800-462-7585).
Housing advocates criticized the announcement, saying that FEMA failed to spell out long-term housing plans, ignored existing federal housing programs and will push some poor evacuees into shelters for the homeless because of lack of planning.
"Unless they have some serious plan for helping move people from hotels into apartments, other than putting up fliers . . . as of December 1, there's going to be a lot of homeless people," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Apartment industry officials called the long-awaited action positive but worried that the agency is dumping the crisis into their hands. They predicted chaos if families do not receive counseling about federal assistance programs.
"To date, the information provided to both the evacuee and the apartment owners about housing assistance has been inadequate and has led to significant confusion," said Jim Arbury, senior vice president for the National Multi Housing Council. "It will be difficult, if not impossible, to secure executed leases for all the eligible families in slightly over two weeks -- including a long holiday weekend."
"It's a hell of a time to be telling people that they're kicked out, a week after the [Thanksgiving] holiday," said Doug Culkin, executive vice president of the National Apartment Association.
Several Texas cities, including Houston and Dallas, have set up city-funded apartment programs for storm victims, anticipating FEMA reimbursement. Under FEMA's new policy, dated Monday, the agency will not pay for any leases signed after Dec. 1, and existing leases must be phased out by March 1.
Housing experts said FEMA is opening itself to legal challenges. On Thursday, 14 people filed a class-action lawsuit in the Eastern District of Louisiana, claiming that FEMA has failed to live up to its responsibility to provide relief to Katrina victims fairly and quickly.
"It appears that FEMA is working very hard to make itself so unreliable that state and local governments will say, 'We can't depend on FEMA in the future,' " Crowley said. "I can't imagine what other explanation there can be for this level of incompetence."
Nationwide, the number of Katrina evacuees living in shelters has fallen to 2,491, down from a high of 321,000 shortly after the storm, FEMA said. The agency said 1.4 million families have registered as storm victims and 500,000 families have received housing assistance.