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Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Sunday, April 2, 2006

The Katrina Cottage strikes back.

With a new, larger version.

About two weeks ago, we posted about the Katrina Cottage, a small 'temporary' home for disaster survivors that is also durable and attractive — and which has a construction cost less than half the purchase price of a FEMA trailer.

Since then, a second version of the Katrina Cottage [PDF file] has been unveiled, and this magpie likes it even better than the first one.

New, bigger Katrina Cottage

Large Katrina Cottage, exterior view [top] and floorplan [bottom].

This new version of the cottage measures 14 ft x 32 ft [4.26m x 9.75m], has two bedrooms instead of one, a small kitchen and a full bathroom. There's also additional sleeping space in a loft. Like the smaller version, the big cottage is designed to ride out floods and hurricanes. And, importantly, it costs no more to build than the cheapest price paid by FEMA for one of its trailers — US$ 70,000 — and much less than the US$ 140,000 price tag for some of the FEMA trailers. The cottage's prototype went from design to completion on-site in just three weeks, which means that the construction time for production cottages would be much shorter. As I said about the earlier version, I'd take one of these Katrina Cottages over a FEMA trailer in a hot second.

While the new version of the cottage is generally being warmly received — especially on the Gulf coast in in other areas familiar with natural disasters — the new cottage is not without its detractors. Slate's architecture critic Witold Rybczynski thinks that the designers could have made the cottages even cheaper to build:

Like most production houses today, the cottages are built out of factory-made panels that are assembled on-site. These particular panels are made out of Styrofoam with exterior and interior skins of cement planks. This is energy efficient, but expensive. Wood framing, fiberglass insulation, and conventional vinyl siding would have been cheaper. So would asphalt shingles instead of the trendy tin roof.

The designers have aimed at a construction cost of $60,000—a full $10,000 less than the current $70,000 that it costs FEMA to buy a trailer. This is an admirable goal, but they should have aimed lower. The cottages are approximately 650 square feet, and the cost works out to just less than $100 per square foot. That's pricey. A good production builder can bring in a conventional house, with all the bells and whistles that current homebuyers expect, for under $40 per square foot. It's true that the Katrina Cottage is designed to withstand flooding, on the assumption that some may be built in the flood plain, but a little "value engineering" would not be out of place....

I'm neither an architecture critic or a contractor, but a little research makes me question some of Rybczynski's criticisms. While wood-frame construction, vinyl sidng and fiberglass insulation are cheaper than the styrofoam and cement plank panels used in the prototype cottage are not just a bit more energy efficient — they're one-third more energy efficient. Given the temperature extremes of the Gulf coast, this efficiency is likely worth the extra cost. [It's not just heat that a house has to deal with, by the way. When living in Minnesota, a Mississippi expatriate once told me that the most cold and miserable winter he'd ever spent was on Missisippi's Gulf coast.]

And while an asphalt-shingle roof is indeed cheaper than a 'trendy' tin roof — the cost of installing the shingles is far higher than installing the tin roof. In addition, the tin roof will last up to 25 years longer than the shingle roof. Given that some of the cottages built in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake are still in use today, the longevity of the roof isn't a factor that can be easily ignored.

But my biggest criticism of Rybczynski has to do with his attitude. By making cost his prime consideration, he's assuming an attitude that's probably not much different than the attitude that led the feds to decide that trailers, rather than more permanent dwellings, would do just fine for disaster survivors. In this view, the best solution is the cheapest one, and the quality of life for the disaster survivor is not a prime consideration. Only the immediate problem of getting a roof over their heads is important. Given that well-off, white disaster survivors usually have the resources to bounce back quickly, the race and class biases inherent in this view of disaster relief are obvious.

History tells us that 'temporary' homes that go up after a disaster often turn out to be permanent. [For example, several thousand of the FEMA trailers provided after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992 are still being lived in by the original residents.] Putting poor people and people of color into crappy FEMA trailers after a disaster and then forgetting about them is not something people in theis country should tolerate. While giving survivors an attractive alternative to trailer life in the form of a Katrina Cottage is not the cheapest solution to the problem of post-disaster housing, to my mind it's by for the better solution. It's far more respectful to the people whose lives have been turned upside-down, and provides them with a home that's viable for the long term.

I wish that Rybczynski had thought things through further — and done a bit of checking on his biases — before writing his Slate article.

In a related matter, the feds are still unwilling to spend money on Katrina Cottages. Despite the wishes of officials in the Katrina disaster area, FEMA seems hell-bent on providing more trailers.

The issue was not cost: The cottage could probably be had for about the same price as a trailer. The problem was that the cottage would be permanent — and FEMA is not in the business of providing permanent housing.

{Ocean Springs, Mississippi mayor Connie] Moran said that agency officials told her that under federal law, FEMA can provide only temporary housing after a disaster. For many Gulf Coast residents, that means the loan of a trailer or larger mobile home for up to 18 months.

As a result, the spot where Moran envisioned rows of starter homes will soon be another post-Katrina trailer park. Like many other "FEMAvilles" in the region, it will be welcomed for the shelter it provides but dreaded for its potential to degenerate into a slum — that is, if it does not blow away in the next storm.

The mayor was crestfallen, and her disappointment reflects a wider concern emerging across the Gulf states. Trailers are pouring in to house the homeless — eventually, 135,000 will be installed in the region. Although many are grateful for the multibillion-dollar effort, they are worried that FEMA's reliance on trailers could lead to serious long-term problems.

It is a fear that Moran describes in blunt terms. "FEMA," she said, "is creating trailer trash."

Some Gulf Coast officials suspect that the trailers will not be temporary. They point to lesser disasters that have spawned hastily improvised trailer parks that have lingered long after the 18-month deadlines.

[LA Times]

| | Posted by Magpie at 1:05 PM | Get permalink

Liar, liar, pants on fire!


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