Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) extended a deadline for moving displaced residents out of hotels and into permanent housing. The move, which added two weeks to the original Dec. 1 deadline (and five weeks for the 10 states hosting the most refugees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) drew rare praise for the embattled disaster-preparedness organization.

FEMA gave states until Dec. 15 to move all of their evacuees out of hotels and into apartments and longer-term homes. For states that together house more than 92% of the 50,000 families that have been temporarily housed in hotels, the deadline has been extended until Jan 7. Those states are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas.

The National Multi Housing Council (NMHC) praised the move. FEMA’s “willingness to extend the deadline for ending its hotel reimbursements will make for a much more orderly transition into more suitable housing, including apartments,” said Jim Arbury, NMHC’s senior vice president of government affairs. FEMA appears to be “moving from a ‘crisis management’ approach to a broader effort to find long-term solutions to the very real housing problems many of these evacuees face.”

That’s quite a change from a couple months earlier, when Arbury said NMHC was “bewildered” by FEMA’s temporary housing plans, and National Apartment Association Executive Vice President Doug Culkin complained that the federal government was not being clear about how it would use the many apartment units that multifamily owners had made available to the recovery effort.

FEMA also announced that it would continue to provide rental assistance to hurricane victims for up to 18 months without reducing their eligibility for other FEMA assistance.

Meanwhile, at press time Congress was preparing its final versions of legislation to direct the rebuilding effort. The House of Representatives and the Senate versions of the bill differed on financial aspects, and the House was expected to omit any Katrina relief measures and instead adopt some or all of the Senate’s measures when the two bills are reconciled.

The Senate bill includes a special allocation of low-income housing tax credits for Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi from 2006 through 2008. It also raises the total amount of the credit allocable to properties for the additional credits. The new credit amount would provide present value of 91% of the eligible basis, from 70%. For properties with tax-exempt bond financing, the amount would become 39%, from 30%.

The legislators and the administration recognized the need to produce a bill soon, and if they fail to do so before the end of 2005, experts predict they’ll move quickly to do so in early 2006. “It’s a very sensitive issue,” said David Gasson, vice president of Boston Capital Corp. "The fact is that these people are still down there with no real support from the government for rebuilding."

That political pressure is likely to lead President Bush to sign the bill even if it is not exactly what the White House wants.