Front Porch Initiative

It really DOES take a village: a systems-based approach to housing access and affordability

Forkland, AL (Photo by Joe Weisbord)

Today’s housing affordability crisis is a slow-motion, multi-generational, public health disaster of our own making. And until we recognize that how folks live today in America is actually the intentional outcome of long-standing intersectional injustice, we never will be able to truly provide equitable, sustainable, healthy, and durable housing access to those in our country that need it most but can afford it the least.

Rural Studio has always been a “Housing and Food First” organization, which means that before we can begin working with our neighbors to address the broader issues faced in our low-wealth community, we must first work together to make sure everyone is decently housed and adequately fed. That said, Rural Studio students have designed and built well over 200 projects for our community, including a lot more than just houses. So why is that if we truly believe in the “housing and food first” approach?

Well, think about the Newbern Firehouse, for example.

Newbern Firehouse (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

While working on developing affordable house prototypes, our students came to realize that one of the significant barriers to affordable homeownership in our community was the lack of adequate fire protection.

“But why is that a problem?” they asked.

Well, because houses were burning down at an inordinate rate.

“And why is that a problem?”

Well, that meant that you couldn’t get homeowner’s insurance.

“And why is that a problem?”

Well, if you can’t get homeowner’s insurance, you can’t secure a mortgage. And of course, as we have come to find, if you can’t secure a mortgage, no amount of work that we might do as architects by “designing the house this way or building it that way” would ever solve this problem; housing access and affordability simply aren’t brick and mortar problems. It is in this way that Rural Studio works with across the whole system of housing access, first by revealing and understanding the deeply systemic issues faced in our rural communities, and then by bringing together key stakeholder partners across all areas of influence who through collaboration can begin to address these challenges.

Together with our partners, we embrace the idea that the best way to learn how to do something is by actually doing it. Rural Studio is action-oriented, and we get things done.

We have also found that when faced with difficult problems, it is always best to tackle them together. So Rural Studio is extraordinarily team oriented as well. Combining our belief in the importance of action with our penchant for partnerships, Rural Studio acts not just as a research “Think Tank,” but also as a sort of “Do-Tank” as well.

In the coming weeks we will be sharing more about not only what we have learned relative to increasing equitable access to high-performance, healthy housing, but also what we are doing about it as well.

Music City “Micro Homes” Complete!

Four Rural Studio-designed homes were the star of the show in Nashville, TN on June 29, 2021. The Music City was celebrating a successful partnership between local housing provider and CDFI Affordable Housing Resources (AHR); efficiency-minded contractor Honeybee Builders; and Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative. Based on Dave’s House, MacArthur’s House, and Joanne’s House, each one-bedroom house is between 510 and 540 square feet. Situated on two side-by-side parcels in the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood, Nashville’s R6 zoning allows for two detached homes per lot. The completed homes are now for sale. With an estimated total monthly mortgage cost of $900, the homes are less than the average monthly rent cost in Nashville which, in 2020, was $1390 per month!

L-R: PJ McCarthy, Fannie Mae; Zulfat Suara, Metropolitan Council At-Large Member; Chris Ferrell, The Barnes Fund Commissioner; Rusty Smith, Rural Studio Associate Director; Eddie Latimer, Affordable Housing Resources CEO, Alfred Degrafinreid, AHR Board Chairman; Latrisha Jemison, Regions Bank Sr. VP/Regional Community Development Manager; Bill Herbert, Nashville Codes Administration Director; Bob Mendes, Metropolitan Council At-Large Member

Early in the day, a dedication and press event was held to showcase the affordable, energy efficient homes. Speakers included representatives from AHR, Rural Studio, Nashville Codes Administration, Regions Bank, Fannie Mae, the Barnes Fund, and city council representatives. Local city councilwoman, Zulfat Suara, lauded the innovative use of land and construction that make these homes affordable in a Nashville housing market where mortgage costs have skyrocketed, leaving many would-be homeowners priced out. The event gained citywide attention through multiple press stories (linked at the bottom of this blog).

Later in the day, around 80 members of the Greater Nashville Auburn Club and other Auburn friends, including former Rural Studio students, attended an open house at the site. Alumni were invited to tour the homes and learn about their energy-efficient design, durable construction, and economical use of land. Our own Rusty Smith spoke to the crowd about how Rural Studio found itself in Nashville: “…we met Eddie Latimer and Affordable Housing Resources. He shared the challenges you all face here in Nashville, and while Nashville might seem a little different than our hometown of Newbern in West Alabama, some of the challenges sounded similar, something we wanted to be part of, and to learn from.”

The Nashville homes mark a significant milestone for the Front Porch Initiative: they are the first mortgage-bearing Rural Studio houses to be built outside of Alabama. The Initiative continues to scale up the research and housing accessibility work of Rural Studio throughout the Southeast. But, there is still much to learn about innovative approaches to zoning, mortgage financing, insurance, and home performance. These four modest homes are a big step forward in our research and ability to share information with a broader constituency of housing providers.

Press links:

The TennesseanHow ‘micro homes’ could be part of Nashville’s affordable housing solution

Fox17 WZTV NashvilleMicro-home development opens in Nashville in aims to help affordable housing crisis

WKRNNew micro homes in Wedgewood-Houston small step toward more affordable housing in Nashville

Photo credits:

AHR Wharf Ave Dedication and Greater Nashville Auburn Alumni Open House events photographed by Tausha Dickinson, provided by AHR.

Completed project photos by Ford Photographs, provided by AHR.

Digitally staged interiors by Brighteous Media, provided by AURS.

Women Build with Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity

Volunteers for the 2021 Women Build
Photo by CAHFH

Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity (CAHFH) recently broke ground on two Rural Studio-designed homes. House 61 is based on the Buster’s House design and House 62 is based on the Dave’s House design. On Friday, May 7th, construction of the homes took a big leap forward, thanks to CAHFH’s Women Build event. As stated on the CAHFH website, Women Build “spotlights the homeownership challenges faced by women and addresses those issues by bringing women together and igniting our collective power.”

Approximately 50 women from around the region, including seven colleagues from our partner Regions Bank, volunteered their day to lend a hand on the homes. Mackenzie Stagg from Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative team also joined the crew for the day. Many of the volunteers are regular supporters of CAHFH, including local businesses connected to the organization and larger industry leaders who want to show their support.

On House 61, the volunteers framed up all of the walls, both interior and exterior. The future owner of the home was able to participate in the event and frame the walls of her own home. Hurricane straps were installed on House 62 to connect the walls and the roof and create a continuous load path. Volunteers also used caulk to seal the framing to the floor and seal the framing to the sheathing. This air sealing is a critical step in increasing the home’s energy efficiency.

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