Eastern Shore Gets New Perspective on Affordable Housing

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This home in Alabama was designed by Rural Studio and built by Habitat for Humanity for $20,000. Photo courtesy of Rural Studio.

By Stefanie Jackson – An Alabama professor of architecture introduced a different way of thinking about what makes housing affordable when he spoke at the Eastern Shore Regional Housing Coalition’s second annual housing summit held online Sept. 25.

Rusty Smith, of Auburn University in east Alabama, is a director of the Rural Studio program for college students studying architecture, who design and build practical but attractive, affordable homes and community buildings.

Students leave campus for at least one semester and up to two years to live and work in rural, west Alabama, building everything from single-family homes to a church and a fire station.

Their work is done in the U.S. southern Black Belt that is troubled by persistent poverty, a federal designation meaning 20% or more of the population has lived in poverty for 30 years or more.

The Rural Studio program was founded on three ideas: learning by doing, working together to solve problems, and access to safe, decent housing as an “inalienable human right” whether or not one can afford it, Smith said.

The students donate their time and efforts to people who “in no circumstances, would ever be able to provide housing for themselves,” Smith said.

The program is funded by donations from individuals and private foundations, as well as regional, state, and federal grants and research contracts.

Funding partners include the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy, financial institutions like Fannie Mae and Wells Fargo, and faith-based organizations like Habitat for Humanity.

Living in poverty looks different than it did nearly 30 years ago when Rural Studio was founded. Tar-paper shacks have been replaced by decades-old mobile homes.

The students, who range in age from 19 to 22, work to design and build better, safer, more durable homes for their clients, who are housing providers and homeowners.

“All the work is real … real clients with real budgets, real sites with real context and hopefully with real impacts,” Smith said.

In Rural Studio’s nearly 30-year history, students have designed and built more than 200 projects in a five-county area.

In that time, Rural Studio has learned the four basic elements of a good housing project. The home must be buildable, weatherproof, durable, and secure, Smith said.

If the house is not designed with these four characteristics in mind, “you may be doing good things, but you’re probably not addressing housing affordability,” Smith said.

Those elements are the foundation of a good home, but the house also should be well-crafted from locally available materials, accommodate the occupants’ needs, promote health and wellness, have a presence, and foster the surrounding community.

Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative seeks to widen the impact of the program’s applied research and help more housing providers “deliver high-performance, dignified homes in their own service area.”

Rural Studio offers four basic home designs, each around 500 square feet, which are “extraordinarily efficient.”

It seeks to provide technical assistance on topics including building codes, zoning, universal design standards, lending and insurability requirements, industry-standard construction, energy performance, and indoor air quality.

Rural Studio also emphasizes the total cost of owning a home. Factors to consider when designing and building a house that is truly affordable housing include efficiency, resiliency, wellness, and community.

“Our homeowners don’t lose their houses because they can’t afford their mortgage,” Smith said.

It’s an unexpected expense that usually causes a rural, low-income Alabama homeowner to have a personal financial crisis and lose a home.

Typical unexpected expenses include high energy bills (monthly energy bills in the area can vary widely from $50 to $350), home repairs needed due to hurricane or tropical storm damage, major healthcare issues, or disruptions in a family’s community network (if, for example, people are working part time and sharing resources like shelter, food, transportation, childcare, or elder care.)

Acknowledging these issues gives Rural Studio a different perspective on what affordable housing means.

For example, a Habitat for Humanity house built to conventional standards might have a mortgage payment of $250, a $150 energy bill, and a $60 insurance payment, for a monthly homeownership cost of $460, Smith said.

By building the same house to high-performance standards, the mortgage payment was increased to $343, making the house “unaffordable” to the buyer.

But those high-performance standards resulted in a more efficient, durable home that brought the energy bill down to $35 and reduced the insurance bill to $48, for a total monthly cost of $426, a savings of $34 a month.

Smith left his listeners to consider this question: “Which home is more affordable? The home that costs less to build, or the home that costs more to build?”

At left is another $20,000 home designed by Rural Studio, built in Georgia. At right is a studio built to the scale of an 8-foot by 40-foot shipping container. Photo courtesy of Rural Studio.