Gulf Coast's home boom

Six months after Katrina, residents are rebuilding in earnest. Major US companies and architects are jumping in, too.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Landlord Jill Schneider is racing to repair splintered doors and water-damaged ceilings at the Mark VII apartment complex in east New Orleans.

At City Hall, Charles Fritchie, a retired Tulane professor, is applying for permits to begin rebuilding his California-style bungalow, which had five feet of water in it during the height of hurricane Katrina flooding.

And in New Iberia, about three hours outside New Orleans, architects and urban planners are talking to local officials as part of a three-week swing around the state. They're sharing designs for hurricane-resistant housing and suggesting zoning changes to accommodate the wave of home building.

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All this is happening even before the US Congress tackles a major funding bill that could give up to $150,000 each to the owners of more than 167,000 homes that were destroyed. All this is also ahead of the Federal Emergency Management Agency issuing new flood-plain maps, expected at the end of next month.

Most of these home- building efforts are individual, as people either receive insurance checks or dip into savings. But six months after the hurricane, the need is still so great that large developers, such as KB Homes, have announced they will build major new subdivisions.

Later this year, it's expected New Orleans will look as if everyone has a hammer and level attached to his or her belt.

"Literally billions of dollars are going to start to flow over the next year, and a lot will be going to housing," says Mark Drennen, CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., which promotes economic development for the region. "But we still don't have the flood maps from FEMA, and we won't see any significant building until they come down."

The FEMA flood maps will detail where individuals can build without flood insurance and whether new construction will have to be elevated on pilings.

One sign that many residents are waiting for the maps is that local banks report a surge of 25 to 30 percent in deposits, says Mr. Drennen. "There is no explanation other than the fact insurance checks are in and people are either waiting to rebuild or can't find contractors," he says.

On its website, the city of New Orleans cites an American Red Cross estimate that some 200,000 homes in Louisiana were destroyed or damaged. Almost half the 45,000 apartment units in the city were damaged.

"We will never have economic recovery until we see a lot more housing," says Drennen. "I met with the owners of Subway and McDonald's [establishments] this week, and they still haven't reopened because they can't find workers, because the workers can't find a place to live."

Part of the short-term solution is to renovate the damaged apartments as soon as possible, say some housing experts. That's what's happening at the Mark VII complex, owned by Ms. Schneider's company, Toledano Properties.

Immediately after hurricane Katrina, the police arrived to ensure that all residents had evacuated the 1960s-era two-story building. They kicked in doors and smashed windows to gain entry. Next came the looters who took anything of value, trashed everything else, and spray-painted offensive graffiti on the walls.

For three or four months, the area had no electricity, so renovation was impossible. Workers finally started cleaning out the 68 units in November.

By mid-March, 15 units should be ready for occupancy. Although Schneider has a waiting list for the apartments, she is close to signing a deal with FEMA that would make the units "temporary" housing, mostly for first responders. The FEMA pilot program would guarantee the payments on a lease for a full year and may be extended in six-month increments.

"I'm hoping I can take it to the bank and use it as security for a loan," says Schneider.

She'll need the funds since she has two other apartment complexes with another 186 units that need work. "I live here. I want to rebuild," she says.

That's also one of the themes at City Hall, where residents come every day to challenge damage assessments on their property or apply for permits to begin rebuilding.

One of those is Mr. Fritchie. With a damage assessment of under 50 percent, he will be allowed to rebuild without the need to elevate his home, which was within walking distance of Tulane. He says almost all his neighbors have either already repaired their homes or are in the middle of doing so.

"I have come to realize you have to make your own decision whether to rebuild," he says. "If there is some kind of reimbursement from the government, that is great, but you can't wait for that."

The need for housing is also attracting some major home-building companies. In December, KB Home said it would build up to 8,000 homes on 3,000 acres in Jefferson Parish, about a 20-minute commute to downtown New Orleans. The houses will range from $150,000 to $450,000. In about six months, the company hopes to start clearing undeveloped land that wasn't damaged by Katrina. "We hope KB Home will be a major catalyst for people who want to come back home," says Steve Davis, the Gulf Coast region president for KB Home.

As part of the rebuilding effort, some of the nation's leading architects and urban planners are also lending their expertise. Last month, at the national home builders' annual conference in Orlando, Fla., architect Marianne Cusato displayed a "post-Katrina cottage."

Her vision is for a well-made modular cottage that could be permanent. Reflecting the local architecture, it would have a porch. And it would be affordable, costing $30,000 to $35,000.

"People have been contacting me from all over," says the New York architect, who has been working on getting the homes erected in Mississippi.

This month, the Louisiana Recovery Authority sponsored another group of architects and planners, who are meeting with residents of three areas of southern Louisiana. Immediately after a Lake Charles session, the City Council there adopted a new zoning code with the architects' suggestions.

"It's a state-of-the-art code," says Anders Duany of Duany, Plater-Zyberk & Co, who headed up the planning effort.

Now the architects are working on three model homes, and they're looking at potential sites in southern Louisiana. Eventually, developers should be able to buy the plans for a fee.

"If they are going to rebuild, we want to do so in a wise and sustainable manner," says Susan Henderson, an architect based in Albuquerque, N.M., who is taking part in the exercise. "Because of the poverty in the area, affordability is key."

These urban designers are now talking to the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana in an effort to persuade FEMA to accept their designs in lieu of trailers. One of the problems: The houses built with these designs could become permanent - something not allowed by federal law.

"Just because a person has lost everything, why are they doomed to a FEMA trailer?" asks Ms. Henderson. "Why can't even emergency housing be something of beauty and even dignity?"

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