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U.S. agrees to house storm victims to '09

Aid for Katrina and Rita evacuees was set to end Aug. 31. Many living with uncertainty were relieved.

NEW ORLEANS - In an acknowledgment that the hurricane-shattered Gulf Coast is in a housing crisis and strained by a slow recovery, the Bush administration said yesterday that it intended 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 might 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.

Yesterday'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.

Some housing advocates said the government's goodwill did not go far enough, because anyone deemed capable of paying rent would be asked to do so starting next March.

Rent will start at $50 a month and increase $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.