01 December 2009

Permanent Housing For Gulf Storm Refugees

Austin American-Statesman

If there was a lesson to be learned from the government's response to the series of hurricanes that battered the Gulf Coast beginning with Katrina in 2005, it was how not to respond to large natural disasters — especially when it came to housing.

"There are poor people who more than four years after the storm are still not housed," said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. "That's ridiculous."

Henneberger thought the state could do better. Now, following a wildly successful statewide design competition, Texas stands poised to learn from the early mistakes of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

After Katrina, FEMA spent hundreds of millions of dollars on trailers that were not only temporary but, in some cases, turned out to be toxic. More money was spent sheltering evacuees in trailers, hotels, apartments and even cruise ships.

Eventually it became clear that there was no real long-term plan, especially for people who couldn't afford to rebuild their destroyed homes. Efforts to produce inexpensive permanent houses stalled, and many displaced Texans still live in temporary residences.

So, Henneberger wondered: What if you could spend the same amount of money on a safe, good-looking house that could be set up quickly when the storm waters receded but then could also be transformed easily into a permanent home?

Two years ago he issued a challenge to Texas architects: Design a small building that could withstand 100-mph winds, be delivered on a single flatbed truck and set up in an afternoon. It should cost next-to-nothing to maintain and be easily expandable and attractive. All for less than $70,000, or what it cost to buy, deliver, set up — and eventually discard — a FEMA trailer.

Nearly 90 Texas building designers responded — "the most popular design competition in state history," said Tom Hatch, an Austin architect who helped set it up. They presented their results last year in a one-day marathon competition — "an architectural smack-down," Henneberger said.

Supporters say the selected homes, the first of which are just now being completed, have the potential to radically change the way government responds to large-scale housing catastrophes.

"We've got a lot of experience with disasters here in Texas — not all of it good," Henneberger said. "We need to learn a lesson. Because this will happen again."

Early mistakes

In the months following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and, later, Dolly and Ike, it became clear that the storms hit the poor disproportionately. Although large numbers of low-income Gulf Coast residents had owned their homes, many had no or insufficient insurance to replace them.

As a result, Henneberger said, FEMA's rebuilding plans, which depended on people eventually returning to work and being capable of helping to pay for their new homes, turned out to be useless for a large number of the storms' victims.

"The whole premise behind federal relief is people have insurance and will resume a job and be credit-worthy," he said. "But none of that applies if you're poor and old."

As time dragged on for evacuees still in temporary housing, FEMA sponsored attempts to create more permanent homes for displaced Gulf residents. The Katrina Cottage, a small, stylish house designed by a New York architect, was unveiled to rave reviews in 2006.

But the homes were tiny — as small as 300 square feet — and when it came time to set them up permanently, local communities balked, fearing that the minuscule residences would lower real estate values. While thousands of the Katrina Cottages were manufactured in Mississippi and Louisiana, many have yet to be put into use.

In 2007, Texas embarked on its own federally sponsored home-replacement project. The state Department of Housing and Community Affairs solicited designs from manufactured housing companies for a structure that could be set up quickly and could replace some of the state's thousands of lost homes.

After asking local community leaders for ideas, the Texas housing department submitted a half-dozen designs to FEMA and requested $67 million to build them.

"When you look at the 22-county region hit by Rita, it's a very large area with many different housing needs and styles," explained Kelly Crawford, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs' director of emergency housing and disaster recovery.

Instead, the federal agency selected a single design and released only $16 million to produce the so-called Heston Home. The structures could be shipped and set up easily, and they cost only $60,000 each.

Unfortunately, said Henneberger, "It looks like a glorified shipping container with a porch added. The house is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a structure that would be welcomed into existing neighborhoods."

"It would work well to bring a bunch in and put them in a desert to house soldiers," added Crawford. "They're much better than tents, no doubt."

The state severed its contract with the Heston Group during the summer because of the company's failure to meet deadlines. Meantime, only six Heston Homes have been set up statewide "due mainly to a limited interest," said Gordon Anderson, spokesman for the Texas housing department.

Houston is still planning to install a cluster of the units in a small development. But a full 50 months after Rita, the city has yet to find an acceptable location for the project, and three dozen of the unassembled homes are gathering dust in a warehouse.

"Everybody was just kind of frozen in place," said Henneberger. "We said, 'We're not going to solve this problem for everyone. But this is about making sure the next time we don't make the same mistakes.' "

After lining up the Texas Society of Architects and Covenant Capital, a Houston nonprofit, as partners, Henneberger persuaded the Texas housing department to commit $250,000 to what he labeled the Grow Home project. More than 150 teams of architects registered to submit plans; nearly 90 actually did.

The trick, said Hatch, was to design a ready-to-occupy home that could be mass-produced rapidly all while "fitting in with the neighborhood so it doesn't look like a government house. It should look like it's always been there."

That meant no industrial-park designs, as well as "something real cutesy with frilly gingerbread trim that didn't look like anything else in the neighborhood," said Henneberger.

The one-day competition took place in January 2008 at the Capitol. The judging panel, made up of architects and evacuees, occasionally clashed. The pros favored sleek, modern designs; the refugees pointed out that the big picture windows provided scant security. They preferred the more traditional bungalow look.

Some of the designs were discarded for lack of ramps or for having second-story bedrooms — both hindrances for the large number of evacuees who have disabilities. Other designs, although attractive, "would have looked great in New Mexico or Arizona," said Hatch. "But not in Port Arthur."

In the end, the panel settled on four designs: two traditional bungalow-type homes; a longer and narrow shotgun-style model that would be built in Port Arthur; and a modern cedar, glass and steel version designed by a Houston firm to be constructed in that city.

A new start in Port Arthur

By the time Hurricane Rita was through with Lisa January's Port Arthur home in September 2005, it was unusable. The roof, already weak from deferred maintenance, had been ripped open; the house filled with water.

January and her teenage son moved in with her mother for a temporary stay. She assumed it would be only a matter of months before she could return to her own house. But with no homeowners insurance, the $2,000 she said she received from FEMA didn't go very far.

"They had so many reasons they couldn't help me," she said.

The months turned into years. Port Arthur Mayor Deloris Prince said several hundred city residents who lost houses in Rita are still waiting for permanent replacement homes.

Last week, four years after Rita, January moved into the first of what Henneberger hopes will turn into hundreds of Grow Homes. Designed by Waxahachie architect James Gleason with "a down-home feeling," the compact white house with blue trim sits where January's old home once did.

Over the next year, Henneberger said he's encouraging new residents of Austin apartments and housing to cast a critical eye on the homes so the designs can be improved. Already, he said, "I'm wondering about the durability of the fixtures. And whether it can be cooled inexpensively with all the windows."

For the moment, however, January, a single mother who was recently laid off from her job as a corrections officer, has no complaints. "I love everything about it," she said. "From the front door, all the way to the back."

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