Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mississippi: Long Term Solutions

Diamondhead HFH Cottage Demonstration

Interior showing addition of living room

Installation of prefabricated tag unit.

Katrina Cottages are sold by Lowe's.

New homes at Cottage Square.

Enterprise Community Partners will find occupants to move into the 8 units in Cottage Square. I don’t see how the occupants are going to last. Will the people living there be temporary? Can someone last permanently in a space like that? It is not that different from a cheap studio apartment in a city, but this is Ocean Springs. Some of the larger units might be viable. If they go to the trouble of making sure the trailers can be permanent, but if the space is not livable enough to be permanent, then what is the point? Spending time in such a small unit, one realizes that it wouldn’t work for the typical American family. Maybe in other countries, but not in the US. Consequently, the first question is: “Well, what about adding on?”
The main challenge is that communities and neighborhoods are vehemently opposed to such ‘trailer’ housing, fearing their property values will drop. They don’t want mobile homes nearby. And since the Katrina Cottage is on a trailer, it is considered mobile. The trailer and the scale are the kickers.

I met with Jorge Quintero, who is working for FEMA’s Long Term Community Recovery program, and he is trying to figure out how to deal with those specific challenges. Partnering with Habitat for Humanity, they have just completed a demonstration project in Diamondhead to explore viability of longer term housing. They took a two bedroom Mississippi Cottage (728 SF) and added a factory built 196 SF module for a completed total of 924 SF. The module was added at the front the house, offering a full living room, and giving the visual impression of a larger house. All of this was added to permanent foundations. The house inside certainly felt livable and there was adequate space to serve the needs of a family with one child.
But, the kicker with this thing is the price. Again. It was very hard to get any real figures from anyone about the pricing of all these things. Bruce said he didn’t how much the original Cutsano cottage cost,, maybe around $100,000. That would make it about $285/SF. The ones they are selling at Lowe’s cost $65/SF. However, that is just materials. Lowe’s just send the materials, not even pre-cut. You still have to hire a professional builder and install the foundation and air conditioning, etc. I would guess at the end of the day, the cost is getting up to at least $150/SF. The two bedroom Mississippi cottages seem to cost around $40-50,000. The cost of the addition alone was $70,000 (not including land costs). Everyone says that, well it is the first one, so it is going to be more expensive. But it is still coming in around $150/SF.
Once again, the crazy thing about all of this building is the costs of it. And the costs probably have more to do with all the codes, standards, expectations of housing now. And because of this, there are crazy complex modes of financing to allow poor people to obtain such housing. So, the real challenge in such housing is financing. And we have seen the problems of all it recently with bad mortgages, poor credit, people wanting things beyond their means. This is certainly a problem that bears responsibility with the individuals as well as the financial institutions and governments. My interest is more in a design realm, and how design can reduce the dependency on the all the external conditions. So, the question remains, can starting small and building incrementally address some of these problems? Yes. It seems to be able to reduce the cost at the beginning, because it is smaller. It can’t be too small, though, and what is too small will depend on the site context. One could make the argument that it is more important to get into a house of your own, even though it may be a little bit smaller. You have a mortgage you can handle. Maybe it will be an investment and work, maybe not. The clear reality of the housing market is that it is really volatile, and you’ve got to be able to weather all ends. If the economy and housing market tank, then you’ve still got your house because it wasn’t foreclosed on, and you can just delay your addition once the market kicks up. This can also relate very closely to personal issues such as losing a job, etc. And then, when you can pull off the addition or expansion, it will be easier because you will have collateral and you can borrow off of your existing building. And if it was designed with some forethought, it will not cost near as much to make the addition, such a preframing, etc. And limiting the amount of choice people have would probably be a good thing.

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