FEMA forced to extend hotel stays, but post-hurricane housing still a national crisis

Thanks to a class-action lawsuit brought by public interest lawyers, FEMA is being forced to extend the length of time they'll help Katrina survivors stay in hotels:

NEW ORLEANS - A program that put Hurricane Katrina evacuees in hotels at government expense while they sought other housing must be extended until Feb. 7, a month beyond the deadline set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a federal judge ruled Monday.

Judge Stanwood Duval's temporary restraining order came in a class action lawsuit filed in November by advocates for hurricane victims. Attorneys pressing the lawsuit said FEMA should not be allowed to end the hotel program because it has failed to provide other housing aid, such as rental assistance checks, to many victims who qualify for it.

Also, information on how to apply for the aid has been slow to reach those who need it most, the attorneys said.

It's a nice reprieve, but all it does is underscore the staggering housing crisis that remains in the Gulf as the critical battleground for Katrina survivors.

FEMA's relentless push to kick survivors out of their current housing arrangement speaks volumes about our country's national priorities. It also ignores an important question: where do they expect these people to go?

For home owners, many insurance companies are dragging their feet in paying claims, with those at the bottom of the economic ladder discovering gaping holes in coverage. Some people I met with in New Orleans last week still hadn't heard from their insurance companies, 100+ days after the storms.

Many of these home owners, broke and nowhere to go, will take the route of what we're hearing is happening in Biloxi's south side -- hundreds of families selling their homes to the first developer who contacts them and offers money, always way below the real estate's value.

For renters, landlords keep pushing to evict their tenants (check out this short video about the situation). Groups like the Grassroots Legal Network in New Orleans push back, winning victories like the recent 45-day stay on evictions. But these only slow down the juggernaut -- it's a delaying action, not a solution.

In the midst of it all is a Gulf Coast economy that has been blown apart, a dearth of jobs, a government infrastructure that's fast being dismantled. People have run out of money, have no job prospects, and now face nowhere to stay.

Bold government leadership, like a commitment to invest, say, $10-20 billion in public works projects to hire people and rebuild the city, could have a huge impact. Strengthening the rights of tenants and home-owners, versus landlords and developers, would level the playing field.

But at the moment, our country's leaders are willing to sit on the sidelines and watch hurricane survivors fend off powerful economic interests and battle over the remaining crumbs -- and feel grateful for small victories, like getting another month in a hotel room.