Earlier this week, FEMA announced it would stop paying hotel bills for evacuees who still have not been placed in apartments.
FEMA had planned to place families in longer-term housing before Dec. 1, but more than 53,000 hotel rooms remain occupied by evacuated families — primarily in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi.
Houston's hotel population of evacuees has decreased to 19,000 from about 60,000 in September, according to a city statement released Tuesday.
Mayor Bill White is asking FEMA to grant Houston extensions of the hotel emergency assistance being offered to Louisiana and Mississippi, where allowances are being granted because of a shortage of available housing.
"Today, I have talked with the senior FEMA official in the United States and the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. They have committed to review both deadlines for hotel reimbursement based on the hotel population and for acquiring needed apartments based on the supply and demand for apartments in Houston," White said in a statement.
Houston officials are moving more than 500 people daily into apartments.
"We may be asking for extensions of these deadlines based on market conditions and commitments previously made by FEMA, and we feel confident that FEMA will review those requests on the merits," White said.
Mayor Bill White chided FEMA officials Wednesday, saying they reneged on assurances to help with the relocation.
At issue, White said, were two agency announcements Tuesday: the plans to cut off evacuees' hotel payments beginning next month, and to stop by March 1 reimbursing the local housing task force that is placing them in apartments.
The decisions, he said, were inconsistent with the agency's previous statements about paying for six- or 12-month apartment leases. The task force's efforts to get evacuees into apartments, he said, will be hampered if landlords don't get long-term rent guarantees.
White, who praised FEMA's past assistance, said at a news conference that he believes agency attorneys in Washington are now "second guessing" pledges made in September. It was those assurances that prompted the task force to launch its massive effort that has placed tens of thousands of evacuees in apartments.
White expressed hope that the agency would change its mind. "Good countries, like good people, keep their word, and I'm sure FEMA will."
FEMA spokesman Don Jacks said that the agency wanted to switch from a housing system arranged by local governments to one where evacuees could apply directly to the federal agency for assistance. Evacuees then would be expected to enter into their own agreements with landlords.
Asked why the agency changed course after telling White and task force officials it would continue reimbursing for a year, Jacks said, "I can't address that. I was not privy to any conversations that might have occurred in the past where FEMA was encouraging any jurisdictions to put people in 12-month leases."
Sandy Coachman, FEMA's coordinating officer in Texas, said the agency was committed to helping people get help moving from hotels to apartments or other housing: "We will help them develop their own long-term plans."
White's strong comments came two weeks after he complained that FEMA officials were too slow to agree to tens of millions of dollars in housing reimbursements. A few days later, he met with top FEMA officials, and the agency agreed to reimburse the city $137 million for housing assistance.
"We won't allow it to happen," [Texas' emergency management coordinator] Jack Colley said. "We wouldn't allow it to happen to a Texan. We're not going to allow it to happen to anybody else. We'll do what we have to do to ensure no family is out on the street."
Colley doesn't know what the solution will be, but he said Texas officials are appealing the Dec. 1 deadline set by the federal government for stopping payment of hotels and motels for hurricane evacuees.
State officials reached a clear agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 12 to 18 months of housing for evacuees, Colley said.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry said FEMA and the Homeland Security chief have been quoted as saying they were not going to put evacuees on the street, despite the Dec. 1 hotel deadline.
"We expect FEMA to live up to that promise," said Kathy Walt.
The city of Houston also is working to move back FEMA's deadline.
Mayor Bill White spoke Thursday with a high-level official of FEMA's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. The mayor's spokesman, Frank Michel, said the city remains optimistic that FEMA will relax its deadline but got no commitments Thursday.
Because of the three-month limit on leases, Mr. White said, the leasing for more than 19,000 people who are still in hotel and motel rooms in the Houston area was shutting down. The program, he said, has been placing up to 500 people a day, and he appealed to FEMA to rescind its order.
"We can't get leases for three months," Mr. White told reporters after a City Council meeting. "Landlords won't do that."
FEMA officials said it was time that evacuees moved out of emergency housing like hotels into more permanent homes, even if those would be temporary.
"We want to help people to get back on their feet, to become self-sustaining and to have some control over their destiny," a spokeswoman for the agency, Nicol Andrews, said. "It is just inhumane to leave a family stuck in a hotel room and not offer them an option that exists to move beyond that."
The three-month limit on leases, Ms. Andrews said, is part of an effort to phase out direct government-financed apartment rentals and instead provide evacuees with cash assistance to rent on their own. After the leases signed by the government expire as of March 1, she added, tenants would be able to take over the leases and use the federal aid to pay their rent.
"The occupants should be able to make the rent on their own with the federal assistance that is provided to them by FEMA," Ms. Andrews said, adding that the agency would pay costs associated with ending leases.
In Austin, another FEMA spokesman, Don Jacks, said that stopping the hotel subsidies would not force anyone to become homeless or lose a night sleeping in a bed.
"This is not an ending," Mr. Jacks said. "We're not forcing anyone out of hotels. Yes, we will stop paying for hotel rooms the night of Nov. 30, and on Dec. 1 these people will need to be ready to move."
Those unable to find apartments may be offered other interim accommodations, possibly even another hotel if necessary, he said, adding, "No one will be left on the street."