By now the story of over 10,000 trailers sitting vacant while Katrina victims hunt for housing has devolved into a head-shaking example of government waste and incompetence. But a few people out there have come up with an alternative that not only could solve the problem quickly, but could be a permanent solution.
Instead of putting devastated residents up in temporary housing like this:
New York architect Marianne Cusato has designed what she calls The Katrina Cottage, a permanent, though admittedly tiny home that certainly could be expanded on added onto. Her Katrina Cottage can be built either on site, or prefabricated and delivered to the location. Cusato says that the cottage could be built for about the same cost as a trailer, or about $60,000 (to buy and ship). Here is what The Katrina Cottage looks like:
Pretty nice, especially if you have nothing to go home to. These would be built on foundations and not anchored and strapped like a trailer.
Markus at Wet Bank Guide says:
The pre-World Ward II housing stock of New Orleans were marvels of design and craftsmanship perfect suited to their environment. I would suggest that the Katrina Cottage meets the same high standards. Be sure to follow the last link above, and note the window seat with built in bookshelves and other details. This is not some turtle shell camper. It is a real miniature home.
I don't see why something like this stretched out to shotgun size couldn't help rebuild entire neighborhoods in the central city. According to details on the Mississippi Renewal Forum, this 308 square foot unit can be built out for less than $35,000. If you take that out to say, 900 square feet (a nice shotgun house size), you could still be under $100,000.
But not so fast. Turns out FEMA doesn't like the idea one bit.
The model house was an instant hit with everybody in Ocean Springs, black and white, and the curious from Moss Point, Pecan, Orange Grove, Gautier and even Biloxi and Gulfport drove over to marvel at the friendly old-fashioned look and feel of a house that could quickly become a home.
Everybody imagined sitting in a swing on the front porch of a summer's evening, sipping a frosty glass of iced tea, listening to the cries of children at play, watching the soft gloaming slowly embrace the land, and reflecting that maybe life wasn't so bad, after all.
Mayor [Connie] Moran, who did the careful arithmetic with the architect, Marianne Cusato, learned that the cottages could be built for about $60,000, just about what the government pays to ship and set up a trailer. She asked FEMA to finance an 87-cottage pilot project on the east side of town.
FEMA said no. The law allows FEMA to provide housing only "on a temporary basis," and the Gulf Coast residents who qualify for one of the 10,000 trailers currently parked and going to rust and ruin on an abandoned muddy airstrip in Arkansas can have one for 18 months. So Ocean Springs will soon have a trailer park, with 600 trailers to replace the 700 houses destroyed by the storm. "FEMA," the mayor says, "is creating trailer trash."
The greater waste here is that the trailers will be auctioned off at a rate much reduced from the governmental cost.
From a Philadephia Inquirer Article dated February 5, 2006:
The cottage Cusato designed is just one of several included in a "Patternbook for Gulf Coast Neighborhoods" developed by Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh [ed.- yeah! baby!] along the lines of similar plan books that exist for towns such as Celebration and Seaside in Florida and Kentlands in Maryland. Some of the other cottages are larger - one is 800 square feet - but all are designed in keeping with the vernacular architecture of South Mississippi.
Cusato said her cottage, a downsized version of the Mississippi coastal-style house, is designed for both residents and emergency workers as an alternative to the FEMA trailer, but for about the same price - $35,000 - "once the cottage goes into mass production." The house can be manufactured or modular, panelized or built on site with traditional construction.
Unlike the FEMA trailer, the cottage (there are three versions) and other houses that will be offered "are designed to withstand hurricanes, since we know that they will continue to occur," Cusato said.
(h/t: Veritas et Venustas)
So the cost is in question, although Cusato is probably right that with the economies of scale, mass production would drive the cost down. The prototype cottages run around 300 square feet, which might seem terribly small to most Americans, but Cusato feels that if we plan and use our spaces wisely, size doesn't matter so much. In any case, these cute little homes have much more space than is allotted many Manhattanites.
Now, conservatives: this will no doubt be looked on as another handout. Fine, call it a handout. The point is that the money that was spend on a wasting asset could have gone to rebuilding whole communities, which should warm the heart of an family-values Republican. Stable communities are necessary for every society and home ownership is the very basis of American Society.
"Studies show that when you put a bunch of these trailers in an area, crime will be high and it's going to be a bad area," said Jason Spellings, the Jackson, Miss., builder who put the Katrina Cottage together with design assistance from local architect Michael Barranco. "You put one on your property and your property value starts going down immediately; they can't hold the land value."
"You can get a free trailer for 18 months if you qualify, and it's a lousy place to live, but it's free," Cusato said. "This cottage is durable, the quality of life is better and it's not going to blow away in the next hurricane, so why don't you want this?"
Actually, Mayor Moran knows why:
Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran told FEMA she'd prefer more cottages and fewer trailers -- "This has a lot more character and a lot more soul than a FEMA trailer," she told the Biloxi Sun Herald last month -- but the government agency has declined to assist. Emeryville architect Christopher "Kit" Ratcliff said he could see why after viewing the plans.
"One of the problems that I see with it, and I probably shouldn't say this, is that it looks nice," Ratcliff said. "I think the government has a very hard time giving things away to people or underwriting things that go beyond some sort of bureaucratically understood minimal gesture.
This is the myth of scarcity and envy. Government has taught that if a segment of society is in need, the general populace will act as if they have been slighted. Often, the reaction to a new housing initiative or program is to say, "Why can't I have this, too?" But this is only so because government perpetuates dependency by actively fostering fragmented and stigmatized communities.
Several blocks from my home (incidentally, a 850 SF apartment that houses us just fine) are new duplexes where practically Soviet-style government housing used to be. The new homes have been up for a few years now, and there are no signs that the residences are being neglected. In fact, they are some of the best maintained spaces in that part of the City. Still, most of us here in the supposedly posh East End aren't agitating to get out feet in those doors. We are happy that the urban disaster that was Urban Renewal of the 60s is finally being corrected.
But even in the midst of this, the reality of what happened to the Gulf should at least ease those skeptical of more government spending--if it is done right. The human animal longs for stability, for a place to settle. These houses could be one of the best government expenditures to come along in many decades.
That spending may not ever come, but Cusato and Moran, along with the support of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Gov. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana, are going ahead with their project, confident that there will be a market for this little house that should.