A Placemaking Journal

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

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