Front Porch Initiative

Breaking new ground: Exciting developments at the Front Porch Initiative

The past few months have been a busy time for the Front Porch Initiative, witnessing the completion of four houses and the ground breaking on two more. Including three other houses in the final planning stages, a total of nine homes are currently, or soon will be, under construction. These homes are the result of partnerships with affordable housing programs in the Southeast who leverage the technical knowledge developed through Rural Studio’s ongoing teaching and research with the practical assistance and model home plans developed by the Front Porch. Our collaborations highlight the best of Auburn’s mission: promoting the common good through teaching, research, and outreach. And each home attests to Front Porch’s mission of making equitable and affordable access to dignified, energy efficient, resilient, and healthy housing available to everyone.

Affordable Housing Resources

Affordable Housing Resources (AHR) in Nashville, TN was the first partner to break ground and complete a collection of four new homes on two lots. The collection of homes is made possible by Nashville’s R6 zoning, which allows for two properties on one lot, with certain restrictions. The homes are based on three different one-bedroom product line prototypes: one home is based on Dave’s House, one on MacArthur’s House, and two on Joanne’s House. AHR’s mission is to provide affordable housing to the Nashville region, and with an estimated monthly mortgage of $900, the homes are substantially more affordable than rent on one-bedroom apartments in the area.

Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity

On February 25, 2021 the Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity (CAHFH) broke ground on two more homes in Jackson County, FL, and two more are planned. The homes will be built on a narrow parcel of land held by CAHFH’s portfolio of properties, making the small footprint of Front Porch model homes ideal for this location. Two of the homes are one-bedroom, based on Buster’s House and Dave’s House, while the others are two-bedroom homes based Joanne’s House and Sylvia’s House. Sylvia’s House is a new addition to Front Porch’s model home catalog developed specifically for this project, adding another option to the product line offerings. The homes will be partially built through a new partnership with the Building Construction Technology program at Chipola College that enables students enrolled in the Construction Technology program to earn class credits in exchange for building the CAHFH homes.

Eastern Eight CDC

(L – R) Sherry Trent, Eastern Eight CDC (E8CDC); John Dillow, E8CDC; Richard McClain, Johnson City Housing Authority; Aaron Murphy, City of Johnson City Commissioner; Rusty Smith, AURS; Steven Dixon, Bank of Tennessee VP and E8CDC Board Chair; & Walter Crouch, Appalachia Service Project

Eastern Eight CDC (E8CDC) is a certified Community Housing Development Organization that provides a range of services to clients in an eight-county service area of eastern Tennessee. Using a HUD Community Development Block Grant, they are partnered with Front Porch to build a model home based on the Sylvia’s House product line offering. E8CDC does not currently offer plans for one- and two-bedroom homes, but they believe this model home will attract more interested residents to pursue small unit offerings. The Front Porch team and E8CDC celebrated the groundbreaking on April 8, 2021.

Photo credits
AHR: Thank you to AHR for providing images by Ford Photographs.

CAHFH: Thank you to CAHFH for providing their own photographs above.

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.