The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave a holiday reprieve to about 150,000 evacuees of hurricanes Katrina and Rita yesterday, saying the vast majority will not lose government subsidies for the hotel rooms where they have been living until Jan 7.
A week ago, FEMA warned hurricane victims living in every state except Louisiana and Mississippi that it would stop paying for their hotel rooms by Dec. 1, which it said was an attempt to encourage them to find permanent housing. But the announcement sparked widespread protests from state and local officials and housing advocates, who said the huge number of evacuees in hotels could not find permanent housing in 15 days.
Yesterday, the agency reversed course. FEMA's acting director, R. David Paulison, said the 10 states housing the bulk of the evacuees -- including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia -- will be able to keep them in government-paid hotel rooms until Jan. 7, as long as they provide federal officials with long-term housing strategies.
Other hurricane victims, who are scattered around the country, will have until Dec. 15 to find apartments, for which they will receive as much as $2,358 for three months of rental assistance and the possibility of as much as a 15-month extension.
"Let me be clear: We are not kicking people out into the streets. We are not stopping the flow of money," Paulison said in a telephone conference call with reporters. "We just don't want to be paying for hotels and motels anymore."
Nearly 50,000 families uprooted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita are living in hotel and motel rooms across the country as part of a $300 million program, Paulison estimated. FEMA is paying about $60 a day for each of those rooms. For evacuees who move into two-bedroom apartments, by contrast, FEMA is paying an average of $786 a month, which saves the government more than $1,000 a month.
Officials in Georgia and Texas, where tens of thousands of evacuees are in hotel rooms, said they welcome the move but remain concerned that FEMA lacks a comprehensive approach to coping with the current housing crisis.
"It at least allows people to have a roof over their heads and heat from the cold for the next few weeks," said Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokesman Ken Davis, whose state is housing about 17,000 evacuees in nearly 7,500 hotel rooms. "We're pleased with what they've done, but ultimately, when it comes to housing, providing disaster assistance for eligible recipients is FEMA's responsibility. We're waiting to see that long-term plan."
FEMA has been widely criticized for missteps in its effort to manage the largest national housing crisis since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The cost and management of other programs to place evacuees on cruise ships and in mobile homes and trailers have drawn the anger of lawmakers and housing advocates.
Texas tops the list of states harboring evacuees, according to FEMA, having billed an average of 18,157 hotel rooms between Nov. 3 and 16. The other states qualifying for the extension until Jan. 7 include Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Nevada and Tennessee.
Rachael Novier, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), said federal authorities need to listen to states in the coming weeks to ensure that the housing program works.
"We hope that FEMA remains flexible in the future so the housing needs of every evacuee can be met, and the governor will continue to call upon FEMA to determine a long-term housing plan for evacuees," Novier said.
Housing advocates were even more critical of the federal government's attempt to move evacuees out of temporary housing.
"We certainly cautiously welcome the announcement, but our concern is what FEMA will say tomorrow or next week," said Linda Couch, deputy director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "They seem to shift position on a weekly basis, and not understand real people are facing real challenges in finding and affording housing."
Doug Culkin, executive vice president of the National Apartment Association, said his group offered in mid-September to sit down with federal officials to discuss the details of the evacuees' plight but has yet to receive a reply.
"We're willing to help find apartments for people," said Culkin, whose group represents 32,000 apartment owners, managers and developers across the country. "They need to tell us where those people are."
FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said the agency has been hampered by federal privacy concerns, and has already given Culkin "everything we can under the law."
Paulison said several states should easily meet the extended deadline, noting that New York will have to move only 12 families out of hotels a day to resettle its evacuees. But Couch said this is impossible in New York City, where there are virtually no vacant affordable housing units.
Paulison emphasized that the government's drive to move people out of hotels and motels reflects the authorities' desire to improve evacuees' living standards, rather than an effort to save the government money.
"We want these families to have some semblance of normalcy," he said. "These families have lost everything. We want to make sure they have some decent living conditions."