Local Commentary

Editorial: Katrina’s Silver Lining

Yet another small revolution is about to explode onto the national scene this summer, something almost no one as yet sees coming. There is the Internet revolution, there is the genome and regenerative medicine revolution. Now, along with those, comes the housing revolution. It is coming at a home improvement store near you; to be specific, at Lowe’s Hardware. Starting in July, Lowe’s will roll out a marketing campaign offering a new concept in attractive, well-built, affordable prefabricated homes, the so-called Katrina Cottages.

This fresh concept in housing arose in the wake of the devastation caused by the Katrina and Rita hurricanes on the Gulf Coast of the U.S. in 2005. Governor Barber of Mississippi called on some of the best architects in the world to design a modular, storm-resistant, affordable housing answer to help recover from the hurricanes’ damage. The special twist was the desire by the architects to make these homes not only far sturdier and permanent than flimsy FEMA trailers, but to make them attractive architecturally, and something their occupants would be proud to call their home. Architect Marianne Cusato came up with the prototype, a 360-square-foot structure based on these features. At a conference on “the near future” sponsored by New Yorker magazine in Manhattan Monday, she described the product, including how it can be expanded by modular add-ons up to 1,800 square feet. She emphasized that the chief advantage, however, is the homes’ durability and their handsome design making residents proud of living in them.

With affordable housing renewal increasingly the clarion cry of progressive political leaders across the land, especially in urban regions, the Katrina Cottage enters the market this summer as a unique and unexpected solution. Not only in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, but in every large back yard, in every small vacant lot (including the infamous so-called “sub-standard lots” in Falls Church) and blighted inner city neighborhood, this unique housing option has the potential of matching the post-World War II housing boom in the U.S. They can become this era’s version of the post-war Levittown model which enabled a whole new middle class to grow out of the ravages of the Great Depression and the war.

The challenge will be for governments, at the federal, state and local levels, to assist in the proliferation of these products to put millions of under-housed Americans into decent dwellings. Competitors to Lowe’s are sure to arise, but the burden will be on policy makers to remove obstacles, facilitate and even incentivize the potential solution these homes represent to the affordable housing crisis.

Putting one up on a residential lot behind an existing home in Falls Church, for example, now requires an intimidating special permitting process. It shouldn’t. That needs to change, maybe before July.

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