Six Years Later: Katrina Cottages take hold

August 11 will be a landmark day in the South Mississippi communities still recovering from the 2005 mega-storm, Hurricane Katrina. And it’s about time.

On that day next week, 18 days shy of the sixth anniversary of the storm, the development team behind the Cottages at Oak Park in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, will host a ribbon cutting for 29 rental units that represent the latest evolution of an idea born in the Mississippi Renewal Forum following the storm.

The Cottages at Oak Park, a short walk from historic downtown Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

Affordable housing with surprisingly solid detailing.

A variety of sizes and configurations are offered,
providing affordable options for everyone from singles to families.

Even before the grand opening, the Cottages at Oak Park are 25 percent leased. And it shouldn’t take long before the neighborhood fills up, joining the adjacent Cottage Square neighborhood in demonstrating the appeal of a comprehensive approach to community affordability. That was the not-so-secret-secret mission of the Katrina Cottage movement.

After disasters like Katrina, the spring floods and the recent killer tornadoes, replacement housing needs are severe. The push to immediately get people into some sort of shelter can conflict with another post-disaster hope, to build back better than ever. Katrina Cottages were conceived during the 2005 Forum in Biloxi to provide an alternative to FEMA cottages, offering emergency housing designed and built to transition to permanent dwellings. More importantly, from the “building back better than ever” perspective, the cottages could seed new neighborhoods of safe, appealing and affordable housing.

Bruce Tolar's Cottage Square.

Ocean Springs architect Bruce Tolar pioneered the application of the idea with his Cottage Square model neighborhood, which has 15 Katrina Cottages or cottages inspired by Katrina Cottages on two infill acres within easy walking and biking distance from Ocean Springs’ historic downtown. I wrote about taking up temporary residence in the Square here.

Now comes the Cottages at Oak Park next door. And soon a similar project in Pass Christian farther west along South Mississippi’s Beach Boulevard.

What the new neighborhoods resolve, at least for this time and place, is the question of how to make the numbers work. Achieving all the interconnected goals — storm-worthy design and construction, curb appeal, sustainability, affordability and in-town convenience — requires collaboration.

Even when there were billions of dollars dedicated to affordable housing from the feds, the results — with the exception of programs like Hope VI — have been unpopular and costly to manage. Now, budget cuts are sure to restrict public sector investments even more.

Non-profits provide all sorts of help during emergencies. But even when they’re able to leverage a variety of funding sources, their resources fall far short of what’s necessary to scale up to meet community needs.

For the time being, at least, the private-sector housing market is skewed towards suburban-style single-family ownership through tax and infrastructure and mortgage financing subsidies. Infill parcels that hit targets of sustainability and affordability for cottage neighborhoods are often more costly to acquire and present more regulatory hurdles for construction. So private developers have a hard time reconciling risk and return on investment.

What made the Cottages at Oak Park work is a partnership. Private developers acquired the two-plus infill acres in Ocean Springs next to Cottage Square. FEMA, via a one-time-only Alternative Housing Pilot Program, and the State of Mississippi paid for the cottages. And Mercy Housing and Human Development and other non-profits provided program administration to connect the aims of post-Katrina housing policy with the developers’ business plan. Read about how the development team was organized here.

I’m convinced this big step in the advancement of the Katrina Cottage effort is significant beyond Coastal Mississippi. In an era of scant public dollars and nervous private-sector development, this sort of collaboration will be essential. It can be a key component of strategies to address the increasing challenges of matching community-worthy housing with the needs of an aging population and a workforce that can balance household budgets only by living closer to where they work, shop, send their children to school and enjoy the benefits of community life.

Keep in touch. We’ll have more on this topic as the Katrina Cottage pace picks up.

–Ben Brown


Filed under Architecture, Development, Public Policy, Sales and Marketing

12 responses to “Six Years Later: Katrina Cottages take hold

  1. Great news, Ben. And good timing – Diane Dorney reported that the Academic Village at Seaside (FL) was approved yesterday. This housing for students and artists will be a row of the Mississippi Cottages, which, as you know, are simpler than, but based on, the Katrina Cottage.

  2. Good article, Ben… thanks! FWIW, has been languishing for years because I’ve had no good way of editing it, not being an HTML guru. I’ve just gone live with using Sandvox, which is a great website builder “for the rest of us.” Next in line is, then,, and The bottom line is that as soon as is rebuilt, I can post all the latest Katrina Cottages news like this!

  3. philip

    Good report. They benefit by there being more, reinforcing each other. It will be interesting to watch Tuscaloosa where the young mayor is pushing ahead with pedestrian-friendly nodes in rebuilding.

  4. Pingback: Affordable Housing » The Littlejohn Group

  5. Tim DeWitt

    Exciting news…..the future is moving in this direction in my opinion and this concept could be utilized in many urban infill concepts throughout the country, but particularly in the Midwestern urban centers. Nothing worth while is ever easy………right?

  6. Charlie

    Love the idea of cottages for affordability; however, in the Ocean Springs example, the density is pretty low – 7.5 units per acre, or an avg lot size of 5,808 per unit, gross, -for these to work elsewhere and be affordable, zoning regulations must change to permit higher densities than typical SFR

  7. Tim Gelston

    Congratulations! Its great to see life given to good ideas. I’m currently working in Minot, ND on their LTCR strategy. How difficult is it to adapt the model to the great northern prairie…?

  8. Good news to hear the Mississippi cottages are now planted. The cottage movement in general, stemming perhaps from the inspiration of seeing various sizes of buildings be tightly compatible in new urbanist settings, is well worth our time and attention.

    I for one didn’t know what to do with my “stuff,” so opted to move up in size rather than down, but in a very urban environment. Hurricanes and tornadoes seem to take care of the “stuff” problem for awhile. More power to you!

    A very nice look, by the way. Who wouldn’t want to live there?

  9. Mark Einselen

    Bruce Tolar has been busy working on these cottages for years! It’s great to see his hard work being noticed. His office is in a grouping of cottages, so he does practice what he preaches. The Pass Christian development has been slow to start, and with the year-round construction climate there doesn’t seem to be a rush to get them finished before winter. Ocean Springs has a higher elevation than Pass Christian, so I’m looking forward to seeing how Pass Christian’s minimum building height codes translate in these cottage building types. Most of Pass Christian requires 20′ above sea level for new construction, and most of the town sites at around 8′, so most new homes are 12′ up in the air (I hope that makes sense).

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