NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ In an acknowledgment that the hurricane-shattered Gulf Coast is in a housing crisis and strained by a slow recovery, the Bush administration said Thursday that it intends to house storm survivors into 2009.
About 33,000 households still rely on federal housing subsidies in cities including Houston and Atlanta. In addition, about 87,000 households in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama are in travel trailers and mobile homes.
Federal housing aid for evacuees from hurricanes Katrina and Rita had been scheduled to end Aug. 31. The extension to March 2009 will enable many struggling residents to afford the rising costs of rent and utilities; on the flip side, it may entice the displaced to delay returning to the bruised Gulf Coast.
Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005, devastating a large swath of the Mississippi and southeastern Louisiana coasts and flooding 80 percent of New Orleans. Rita hit southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas almost a month later.
Thursday's announcement was a relief to many hurricane victims who have been living with uncertainty.
``You never know. You just wait until you hear the magic words: 'No, you will not become homeless, no, you will not have to live in a shelter,''' said Gilda Burbank, who has been living in Houston since she was rescued from a public housing development in New Orleans.
``That is a blessing,'' said Debbie Holmes, who works with homeless people and receives aid herself. The government is paying her rent on a ``shotgun'' style home in New Orleans.
The monthly rent, $1,128, is high for New Orleans, despite the home's location in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Such inflated rents were unthinkable before Katrina, she said.
``Lord, I just had a group of 15 people, women with children, trying to find affordable housing,'' Holmes said. ``Utility bills are unbelievable. One lady said the utility bill is $700. We've found there are more homeless people than before. People are trying to find affordable housing, but it's hard.''
Some housing advocates said the government's goodwill doesn't go far enough because anyone deemed capable of paying rent will be asked to do so starting next March. Rent will start at $50 a month and increase by $50 each month thereafter, officials said. Those unable to pay, such as the elderly, mentally ill and physically disabled, will get a waiver, officials said.
``Here's the reality: The people left in the rental assistance program are extremely poor,'' said Sheila Crowley, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition. ``It's simply designed to push people out of the program.''
Federal officials disputed that.
``We're not trying to kick people out, we're just trying to get people back to self-sufficiency,'' said David Paulison, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development said Thursday that it is taking over some of the aid effort from FEMA, which generally avoids long-term recovery projects.
``We are doing everything we can to stabilize the lives of people affected by Hurricane Katrina,'' HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson said. ``We want everybody who wants to come back home to come back home.''