Protests force FEMA to postpone eviction of Katrina survivors

WASHINGTON – Stung by complaints it was pushing hurricane victims out before the holidays, FEMA extended its hotel housing program Nov. 22 by a month in 10 states where most homeless evacuees sought shelter after Katrina and Rita.

The estimated 150,000 hurricane evacuees still living in hotel rooms would have until Jan. 7 to find other housing before the federal government evicts them from the hotels. The deadline is only until Dec. 15 for 3,700 other households scattered nationwide.

Housing is a huge crisis for storm survivors. There is no federal plan to guarantee safe, affordable housing for any of the people displaced by Katrina and Rita.

Survivors have reported difficulty in getting landlords to take FEMA vouchers for apartments and the distribution of FEMA trailers moves at a snail’s pace.

Landlords have taken advantage of the housing shortage. In New Orleans, for example, apartments in livable neighborhoods that went for $600 per month are now going for $2,000 to $3,000 a month.

FEMA has also been a hindrance in guaranteeing survivors housing, local officials charged. FEMA has been blocking cities, like Houston, from signing apartment leases on behalf of hurricane victims. Houston has been moving about 400 people a day into apartments from hotels, offering government-financed housing with one-year leases. FEMA backed off its Dec. 1 deadline to ban new government-sponsored leases and said it will extend the deadline into January.

Mayor Bill White of Houston, one of many elected officials to criticize the Dec. 1 eviction deadline, said he was pleased with the agency’s response. Texas alone has evacuees in more than 18,100 hotel rooms, the most of any state, and the greatest number of those are in Houston.

Mayor White said FEMA should have realized all along that the Dec. 1 deadline did not make sense, a failure he attributed to excessive levels of bureaucracy between the agency’s local representatives in Texas and top officials in Washington.

‘Between the local people and the top seem to be about seven or eight layers of people who need to get a life,’ Mr. White said.

In an e-mail call for a Nov. 30 protest from the Hip Hop Caucus, a youth empowerment and social justice coalition, the group charged the Bush administration with being “more concerned with property than people.”

“It would be disgraceful and disgusting to cut funding off for housing without a plan for people to go someplace, there must be a plan for them to return home. First and foremost, these people are not refugees as continuously stated by FEMA, they are survivors, they are Americans, and we must be there for them in there time of need,” the e-mail read. “So if by Nov. 29, FEMA does not change it policy of property before people, and extend its Dec. 1 deadline to stop paying hotel bills for many victims of Hurricane Katrina and come up with a proper plan for people to return home, the people will be left with no choice but to protest and march on FEMA.”

Terrie Albano (talbano@ contributed to this update.