Front Porch Initiative

Raising the Roof in Nashville

Between the Ryman Auditorium, the honky-tonks of Broadway, and the world-famous recording studios of Music Row, “Raising the Roof” in Nashville is a long-time tradition. On the Front Porch team’s most recent trip to Music City, U.S.A. we found our partner Affordable Housing Resources raising a different kind of roof and were delighted to see all four houses topped out and just beginning the installation of windows and doors. But for Rural Studio the idea of “raising the roof” carries yet another meaning. Providing more than just physical shelter, “raising the roof” embodies the idea that providing increased access to beautiful, well designed and affordable housing serves to expand opportunity to those in our community that need it most. Working to eliminating the structural and systemic barriers to homeownership, together with our partners the Front Porch Initiative is dedicated to “raising the roof” by providing equitable pathways to homeownership and the financial wellbeing and security that homeownership provides.

aerial view of project site
Construction progress at AHR site

The Last and the First

Like most everyone, we remember exactly where we were on Friday 13, March 2020, the day of the nationwide shutdown. The Front Porch team was on a field trip to Nashville, Tennessee to participate in the 2020 Tennessee Housing Conference and catch up with our friends from USDA, Fahe, Hope Enterprise Partners, Mountain T.O.P., and Eastern 8. In addition, we connected with Fannie Mae’s Disaster Recovery Group, who were traveling to town to perform a damage assessment following the recent tornado that tore through intown neighborhoods just the week prior. We also participated in working meetings with our partners from Affordable Housing Resources, who are building four Rural Studio 20K Houses on Wharf Avenue in Nashville’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood in collaboration with NeighborWorks and Regions Bank. Little did we know this would be our last face-to-face meeting with any of our partners for over four months.

Group photo with Front Porch team and additional partners at TN conference
March 2020 Tennessee Housing Conference

Working directly with the City of Nashville’s innovative zoning policy that allows for the development of a “Horizontal Property Regime“ (HPR), Affordable Housing Resources received tentative approval to build two individually-owned, single-family units on each lot, thus allowing for a denser utilization and lower land cost per unit. Though slowed a bit by the shutdown and transition to remote working, Affordable Housing Resources continued to work in the intervening summer months to successfully move the Wharf Avenue project forward through zoning, permitting, and approvals.

Fast forward to August, and just as Rural Studio is getting students back to Newbern and beginning to open our community and housing projects back up in Hale County, the Front Porch team has also been given approval to get back on the road for essential research travel. And just in time, too, because we are excited to say that Affordable Housing Resources broke ground on the Wharf Avenue Project in late July! Since that time, the team has made two site visits to Nashville, our first face-to-face visits since March. Under the oversight of Barbara Harper Latimer, owner of Honeybee Builders, the project continues to progress quickly, with two-and-a-half of the first four houses framed.

It’s been a long road, and we have a way to go still, but we are extremely fortunate to have persistent partners like Affordable Housing Resources seeing the project forward in this very dynamic time. We are excited to finally have new houses coming out of the ground in Nashville, and we look forward to keeping you updated on our progress there, as well as in our other locations around the Southeast.

An Efficient, Resilient, and Healthy Home

The Front Porch Initiative is dedicated to addressing housing quality and affordability in persistently impoverished rural communities. We believe that everyone, rich and poor, deserves a “shelter for the soul.” Rural Studio has spent decades designing and building homes for our rural neighbors that are efficient, resilient, and healthy, and now, we want to expand rural homeownership outside of our service area in West Alabama.

Rural homeowners, especially those in persistently impoverished communities, often struggle to qualify for a mortgage. We can meet this challenge by re-thinking housing affordability, so we’ve asked the question: what can an efficient, resilient, and healthy home afford the owner, lender, and insurer?

Traditionally, housing affordability is addressed primarily by reductions in the cost of building a home, through using less expensive materials or other means of value engineering. Our approach makes housing more affordable not by simply reducing initial construction costs, but instead by also increasing overall building performance. Energy performance, durability, and resilience, and a focus on wellness can better enable a homeowner to pay their mortgage month after month, and year after year—and at no increase in monthly cost to the homeowner.

Simply put, for every $1 a homeowner can afford to increase their monthly mortgage payment, they can finance an additional $200 of building construction costs. So, if by increasing energy efficiency we are able to reduce a homeowner’s monthly energy bill by just $25 per month, we can shift that same $25 to their monthly mortgage payment. Due to the long-term financing of this investment, the homeowner can now afford to finance an additional $5000 in energy-efficient construction with no increase in their total monthly home-related bills.

With the understanding that homeownership is the foundation of financial wealth building, we connect the “first costs” of home procurement (the overall cost of the mortgage) to the “second costs” of homeownership (monthly mortgage, utility, and insurance bills), creating a new paradigm of how a lender might consider the mortgage eligibility of a homeowner. By changing this mortgage paradigm, homes can afford rural homeowners the opportunity for safe, reliable, and efficient shelter. Moreover, higher-quality, higher-performance homes reduce risk to both the lender and the insurer.

Meet Betsy Farrell Garcia!

Betsy Garcia headshot

The Front Porch Initiative is growing! Through the generous support of Fannie Mae, we welcomed Betsy Farrell Garcia, Assistant Research Professor, to the team this spring. Betsy will work in support of current partnerships and foster new collaborations with Field Test Partners, organizations that provide homes in rural communities.

Originally from Mississippi, Betsy (’08 BArch, BIntArch) is a graduate of Rural Studio’s 5th-year program and a member of the student team that designed and built the 20K Bridge Home. Before returning to Auburn, Betsy practiced as a licensed architect with firms in Boston specializing in arts, higher education, and K-12 facilities, many designed to high standards of sustainability. She brings this extensive experience and her industrious work ethic to Rural Studio and the Front Porch Initiative.

Betsy will be joining Mackenzie Stagg, CADC’s first Assistant Research Professor, on the Front Porch Initiative research team to further the development of our high performance product line homes. She brings expertise with envisioning and designing efficient, resilient, and equitable housing for communities that need it most. As part of the research team, Betsy leverages Rural Studio’s long history of collaborating with our West Alabama neighbors to address housing needs throughout the Southeast and beyond.

If you ask Betsy why she chose to work with the Front Porch Initiative, she will start with her call to service, bolstered by a strong belief in Rural Studio’s community-driven mission. Her interest in furthering the valuable research of the Rural Studio motivates her, and she looks forward to working hard to help the Front Porch Initiative bring better homes to more rural Americans.

Introducing Our Institutional Partners

2018 Partner Meeting in Newbern, Alabama

The mission of the Front Porch Initiative is to promote home ownership in rural communities. That’s a big goal, and we can’t do it all on our own. So, we’ve built a coalition of institutional partners who offer their expertise and help support our work. We have collaborators in industry, not-for-profit, and government sectors. In this post, we’d like to introduce you to a few of our institutional support partners.

For three years, Fannie Mae, a leading source of financing for mortgage lenders, has been supporting the Initiative’s “Test and Learn” plan, which will develop home building documentation and study the social and economic impact of increased rural home ownership on local communities. The documentation provides detailed drawings and resources for building four of the 20K Homes, what we call our product line homes. Each product line home is built to maximize resilience and efficiency while supporting health and equity among rural homeowners.

The Initiative is collaborating with another finance industry partner, Wells Fargo, to improve home ownership among citizens in West Alabama. Wells Fargo, a leading financial services company, is providing research and development support for continuing work at Rural Studio, focusing specifically on ways to increase home ownership among African American residents.

In addition to industry partners, the Initiative has a multi-faceted collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development department to help build housing in rural America. Recently, USDA awarded us a Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI) grant to provide enhanced technical assistance to Mountain T.O.P., a faith-based volunteer program based in Grundy County, Tennessee. Previously, Mountain T.O.P. focused on repairing homes in the rural Cumberland Plateau area, but with this grant, they will also begin building new construction homes for local residents.

USDA has also temporarily assigned Meghan Walsh, Senior Architect for USDA Rural Housing Service, to support the Initiative. Walsh brings expertise in both architecture and mortgage financing, which will help promote a sustainable model of home procurement that recognizes and accommodates the needs of rural home buyers.

In the coming months, our blog will feature these partners and others who are helping us achieve the goal of rural home ownership, so check back and read about our progress!