Katrina Cottages Finding Traction on Gulf Coast

Neighborhood Sites in the Works

Finally, after more than three and a half years, one of the key New Urbanist efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is beginning to grow legs. And perhaps more importantly, the models being created have implications for affordable housing everywhere. (In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve been a consultant on various Katrina Cottage projects, including the Cottage Square effort covered below. Also: Fellow PlaceMaker Scott Doyon and I revisited lessons-learned since the Mississippi Renewal Forum with our 2008 update of the official charrette website).

The Katrina Cottage movement, born during the Renewal Forum in Biloxi in October of 2005, put forward a series of designs for affordable, storm-worthy structures small in scale but beautifully proportioned and in keeping with the Mississippi coastal vernacular. The idea was to offer emergency housing designed and built so well that they could transition to permanent dwellings, as opposed to FEMA trailers that often ended up in landfills. Read about the history of the KC effort here.

Because of its mandate to focus on emergency management issues and not permanent housing, FEMA resisted investing directly in Katrina Cottages but was nudged into an alternative housing experiment because of pressure from the politically influential Mississippi Congressional delegation. Louisiana, which lost even more homes during the flooding aftermath of Katrina than Mississippi lost in the storm surge, got part of the appropriation, as well. And the two states pursued separate tracks for creating cottages inspired by the work of the Forum architects.

Mississippi designed its own Mississippi Cottages and contracted manufactured housing companies to build them. And while the designs didn’t measure up to the standards set by the Forum architectural team, they came close enough to be embraced by folks desperate to escape from FEMA trailers and to appear capable of taking the next step envisioned by New Urbanist designers in 2005: Transitioning to permanent dwellings in existing neighborhoods and serving as building blocks for cottage clusters in new projects.

What stalled the transition was resistance from citizens who were stuck in the perception that anything made in a factory was a mobile home. So they pressured planning commissions and local officials to keep the cottages out, even, ironically, out of neighborhoods zoned for mobile home parks. In its April 2009 issue, Governing magazine lays out the debate and features one of the reasons the tide is changing: Bruce Tolar’s Cottage Square.

Mississippi Cottages in Cottage Square (Harry Connolly/Enterprise)

Mississippi Cottages in Cottage Square (Harry Connolly/Enterprise)

Tolar, an Ocean Springs, MS, architect, was on the original MRF architectural team and took to heart Andres Duany’s admonition to create model Katrina Cottage neighborhoods. The Cottage Square, created by a development team Tolar assembled, is a transit-oriented, mixed-use infill project on two acres a half-mile from Ocean Springs’ historic downtown. The site is home to six Katrina Cottages, including the first one, Marianne Cusato’s “little yellow house” that was such a big hit at the 2006 International Builders Show. And now it also has eight of the state’s Mississippi Cottages permanently set on foundations, massaged into neighborhood friendliness by Tolar’s building crews, and rented to locals displaced by Katrina. Go here to see how the Mississippi Cottages were wedged into Cottage Square in time for the third anniversary of the storm last year.

As more and more citizens and elected officials get the chance to tour the Square, official resistance to the cottages, including the manufactured Mississippi Cottages, is shrinking. “Most people don’t get this place,” Tolar told Governing, “until they come here.”

Increasingly, they’re getting it. The architect is now working with non-profits, local governments, and private developers to place as many as 200 cottage units in site-planned neighborhoods over the next six months. Some of the sites are likely to contain three or four times the number of units as Cottage Square and may inspire, at long last, an acceleration in the manufacture and on-site construction of safe, affordable housing in neighborhoods built back better than they were before the storm.

Tolar is also getting attention beyond the storm zone. A visiting group from MIT was by recently, and the affordable housing non-profits like Enterprise are spreading the word about potential adaptations of the Cottage Square model for other communities. In the area of the New Austerity, living small and smart could catch on in a big way.

The Katrina Cottage example may provide “recovery housing for the new economy,” Tolar told Governing. “Maybe it’s the home we can all afford. When people ask me why I spend so much time on these cottages, I say it’s because I may be living in one.”

— Ben Brown


Filed under Architecture, Legal, Planning and Design