innovation and the odds

In July of 2015, a Washington Post article “An Opportunity Gamed Away” shared the story of Linda Fay Engle-Harris, a Tunica, MS resident whose housing and economic situation might have been different if the development possibilities brought by casinos had been tapped into by government and corporate leaders. Ms. Engle-Harris, like many others in rural Mississippi, lives in a dilapidated home and does not have access to affordable housing options that are safe, healthy or dignified. Though we often hear stories of Mississippi and the ways in which the deck is stacked against residents, especially Black residents, adversity also leads to ingenuity. Though a challenge is at the root of Ms. Engle-Harris’ story, in 2016, innovation is becoming the theme.

Olon Dotson, an Associate Professor of Architecture at Ball State University, was inspired by to get involved by the Post article. He contacted Ms. Engle-Harris and the two have embarked on a journey to improve Ms. Engle-Harris’ living situation, but also to engage Ball State students in important questions around affordable housing and social and environmental justice in the process.

My own work documents one story of how Katrina Cottages have been re-purposed as affordable housing after their initial deployment to the Gulf Coast. Now, Dotson and his students are digging into the question of how to utilize remaining one-bedroom (approximately 400 square foot) units that don’t fit well in the demographic of large and sometimes multi-generational households common in Mississippi’s rural environment. Students presented mid-term designs to Ms. Engle-Harris combining two of the smaller units into one large home.

Dotson’s studio is exposing students to topics that loom large in the architecture and community development fields today, such as how design can better be utilized and understood as a tool for building equity, and how the definition of the roles of the architect and the client change faced with contemporary challenges. But likely the most innovative aspect of this project is the balance that the student proposals strike between modular and site-built components. As architects seek opportunities for innovation throughout an expanded scope of project delivery, and interest in pre-fabricated, modular and manufactured housing continues to rise, this type of hybrid thinking is not yet well vetted but implies untapped potential for improving building performance and responding to client’s individual goals within the confines of a budget.

more than housing

The Baptist Town Cottage Project has outcomes that are immediately apparent: families have decent, safe places to live. To expand the impact this project has further, our project team has folded in empathy, skills training and design thinking. This has included the Ladies in the Landscape storm-water demonstration garden, employing neighborhood residents throughout construction, and creating carpentry and landscaping details based on the preferences of each home owner. Now, as the closings are being completed for each home, Cottage buyers are finding allies in the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas (FHLB) and Planters Bank and Trust. To date, FHLB’s Home Equity Leverage Partnership (HELP) program has provided down-payment assistance grants to eight families. Read the article about this grant success on the PR Newswire.

My favorite part is this great picture of Brenda, and her story.

“She is finding her way back to something. She lived in Biloxi when Hurricane Katrina hit, and she was displaced from her home,” Ms. Roush-Elliott said. “The Baptist Town Cottages were designed for people in her situation, and despite many years and many miles traveled, she now owns a home designed to be a dignified place to live, affordable for her family, and resilient in the face of disaster.” (Excerpt from the article)

at home in greenwood

On Thursday, December 18th we celebrated the first families moving into the Baptist Town Cottage Project with a ribbon cutting ceremony. I was moved by the number of people who attended. Throughout the project, support has come from numerous individuals and organizations. I think that this generosity is rooted in an understanding that home is about more than walls and a roof, it is an avenue to financial stability and physical and emotional health. Just as important, I think the commitment that the larger Greenwood community has given to this project shows that a home is also what surrounds the structure. Healthy homes will lead to a more vibrant and equitable Greenwood.

Thank you Greenwood! For a video of the day visit Mississippi State University’s website where the Office of Public Affairs covered the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Photo credit Bryn Stole

cottage construction

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Cottage Project is under construction! In only a few weeks, eight homes have been placed on newly constructed foundations. Three additional foundations are currently underway, while Richard and I work to get the first eight move-in ready.

a big step forward

On March 17th, 2014 a piece of legislation was passed in the Mississippi State House of Representatives that will allow the project partners committed to bringing healthy, affordable homes to the Baptist Town neighborhood to move forward with the long-planned Mississippi Cottage initiative.

Through this effort, the Greenwood-Leflore Fuller Center for Housing (previously a Habitat for Humanity Chapter) will manage the construction and the mortgages for twenty-six Cottages that were donated to the City of Greenwood for use as affordable housing by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency in 2011. Since the homes were donated, the project has encountered numerous unexpected complexities and hurdles (cataloged here). Despite setbacks, project partners, home-owner applicants, and Baptist Town neighborhood residents haven’t given up on seeing this much-needed effort come to fruition. With the passage of legislation that will allow the City of Greenwood to donate the homes to the local Fuller Center chapter, the project is now poised to be completed in 2014.

Just as the project takes this exciting step forward, the Fuller Center Bike Adventure, an annual bicycle ride that incorporates a day of volunteer construction, came to Greenwood to build what else, but steps. During the Spring Ride (follow them on Facebook from March 14th-23rd), the thirty-three participants will ride over 350 miles in a week, raising funds and awareness about Fuller Center projects and programs. Included in this week is one build day, and the Greenwood-Leflore Fuller Center was honored to host the group here in Greenwood. These hard-working volunteers completed twenty kits of step parts, and assembled seven of them. Once the Cottages are installed on permanent foundations these steps will be attached. Many thanks to everyone who helped us kick off an exciting season of Cottage construction work!

cottages not forgotten

It has been a long time since I posted about the Cottages, donated to the City of Greenwood for use as affordable housing, and a big part of my fellowship work plan. This is because a resolution needs to be passed by the Mississippi legislature (typically in session from January through March) to allow the Cottages to legally end up in the hands of the organization that will install and sell them. As with many affordable housing projects, we have run into unexpected snags, policy that never predicted our specific circumstance, and skepticism. A recent letter to the editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth voiced some very real concerns about the homes regarding their durability, safety in regards to resident health, and cost. As I continue to build relationships with our legislators and we hopefully move closer to successful passage of our bill, this letter also provided me with an opportunity to publicly respond to these concerns. Below are some important facts about the cottages and this project that I highlighted in my response in a letter to the editor run on Sunday, February 9th, 2014.

  • The Mississippi Cottages are high quality homes. They were designed not as temporary shelters, but as a way for Gulf Coast communities to build back better than they had been before Hurricane Katrina. I spent a significant amount of time in the homes while working in Biloxi, and I would not be dedicated to this project if these homes were not of a quality that I would live in one myself.
  • From a technical standpoint, it should be clarified that the homes are “modular”, not “mobile”. This means that they conform to the highest building standards, and will meet all code requirements in any area of the United States.
  • In regards to finances, the Cottages themselves were donated, but the land on which they will sit, their foundations, driveways, steps, and mechanical, electrical and plumbing connections were not. These items combined will cost an estimated $25,000 for a two-bedroom Cottage. Pending passage of a bill currently in the MS legislature, the Fuller Center will sell the homes to applicants for only the costs that they invest in the items listed above. The mortgage the Fuller Center will offer will be for 15 years with 0% interest. It is our projection that the actual per month cost will be approximately $120-$160 in mortgage principal payment plus $60-$120 in monthly payments for insurance and property taxes.

another sign of progress

gw cw sign

Many thanks to Jeanie Riess, a great writer for our local paper, who covered the unveiling of our new sign and ran this image and caption in the Greenwood Commonwealth today. I have had more than a dozen phone calls already from interested applicants, and two completed applications submitted. Thanks to Jeanie and everyone supporting this project!