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Despite predictions, housing still to be found in D.C.

WASHINGTON — For all the procrastinators who've decided at the last minute that history is worth braving monumental crowds, bitterly cold weather and congressional-caliber gridlock, there's good news.

Hotel rooms are still available in Washington for people who are hoping to see Barack Obama sworn in next Tuesday as the first African-American president of the United States. And those much-ballyhooed tales of urban dwellers renting their studio apartments for thousands of dollars each night? Largely hype.

To be sure, most area hotels are operating at capacity and campsites throughout the region are booked with RVs. However, there are still several hundred hotel rooms available in Washington, said Rebecca Pawlowski, a spokeswoman with Destination DC, a tourism clearinghouse.

"It's limited availability, but there are still rooms to be had," Pawlowski said.

Of course, there's a premium for the remaining rooms, she said. Prices begin at about $400 to $500 a night and are averaging about $700 a night.

Rooms also are still available in Virginia and Maryland suburbs just outside Washington.

For folks who are on a budget and are willing to drive, there are moderately priced rooms available in places such as Front Royal, Va., a 60-mile scenic drive from the capital. Hotels in Annapolis, Md., a 45-minute drive — depending on traffic — are going for about $200 a night.

Pawlowski urges people who are still looking to call the city's hotel hot line: 1-800-422-8644.

"We've got hotels that are still available and are charging less in many cases than the private home rentals," Pawlowski said. "As a consumer, if I had the option of staying in a hotel where I could pay with a credit card and have some purchase protection, it's kind of a no-brainer in that respect."

As many of the people who advertised their apartments online have found, there aren't many takers. Many of those who posted listings on such forums as Craigslist slashed their astronomical asking prices or gave up on rentals entirely.

In the days after Obama's election, Deana Bass, who operates a small public-affairs shop with her sister, saw a niche for matching owners with visitors. She put together the Web site to connect the two; only those who were posting listings had to pay. Almost immediately, a woman in San Francisco contacted her with a $3,000-a-night budget hoping to find a place.

Bass found, however, that interest flagged after the initial excitement. She said she'd found that people who were dreaming of paying a month's mortgage or more with the proceeds of their rentals have been unwilling to "open their homes for $150 or $200 a night."

"We have e-mailed our people and encouraged them to lower their rates, and some people have lowered their rates," she said. "But the bottom line is I don't think people want to go to the trouble of prepping the house, cleaning the house, doing all this stuff, for $200 a night."

Some charitable organizations have scaled back their plans, too. Unitarian Universalist churches such as All Souls in Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood planned to open their doors to churchgoers across the country who were looking for what the Rev. Robert Hardies described as a "crash pad." They scaled back that plan after they realized that demand was low, Hardies said.

Instead, about 30 to 40 out-of-towners have signed up to stay with members of the congregation. For a suggested donation of about $150 a night — which goes toward church charities — visitors get breakfast and roofs over their heads.

"The philosophy was twofold," Hardies said. "It was to provide hospitality to people so they can come to the inauguration and celebrate and do that affordably. And quite honestly, it's a tough budget year for everyone and this is an opportunity to help pay for some of the ministries of church in an otherwise difficult budget year."

Many Washington-area residents are hearing from budget-conscious far-flung friends and long-lost family members who are attending the inauguration and seeking no-cost accommodations.

Dixie Siegel, an avid Obama supporter from Twin Falls, Idaho, booked her plane tickets in October, certain that she'd be coming to town for the big day. She and her husband originally reserved a room in a hotel near Washington Dulles International Airport, but then decided to stay with old friends from Idaho who now live in Bowie, Md.

Said Siegel: "We owe them big time."


Check out McClatchy's inauguration coverage