Washington The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday 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 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, those people will have 15 days to lease apartments, make other arrangements or begin paying their own bills. Many families will be eligible for up to $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, governors 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 phase-out of the hotel program marks the latest effort by FEMA to manage the largest national housing crisis since the Dust Bowl of the 1920s. 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. Tuesday, however, 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 the process of notifying displaced families. He said FEMA issued a press release, released a public service announcement, directed a contractor to slip fliers under the hotel room doors of evacuees and began Tuesday to contact people by phone or in person to discuss their options.
"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 individual 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 groups 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 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. CST daily, at 1-800-762-8740 (TTY 1-800-462-7585).
Housing advocates criticized Tuesday's announcement, saying FEMA failed to spell out long-term housing plans, ignored existing federal housing programs and will push some poor evacuees into homeless shelters 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 and predicted chaos if families do not receive counseling about federal assistance programs.