frontporchinitiative

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.

Welcome to the Front Porch Initiative Blog!

The Habitat product line house
Image by Matt Hall

The Front Porch Initiative seeks to expand the reach and impact of the ongoing research, design, and construction work at Rural Studio. Capitalizing on over 25 years of work in West Alabama, our goal is to use the deep knowledge of quality home building developed by students in Hale County to promote quality home ownership in other underresourced rural areas.

Over the last 15 years of focused research and development on rural housing, student teams have continually built on the previous work of their peers, with an increasing focus on how each home is designed for both construction affordability and optimized performance. The result is a line of homes that are designed to be durable, efficient, resilient, and healthy. The Initiative aims to offer quality housing products in communities across the South and Appalachia (climatic regions most amenable to the 20K Home design) as well as offer our knowledge and technical assistance to housing providers more broadly.

“Good housing is a fundamental human right. It improves health, economies, and communities. Our goal is to provide access to beautiful, dignified, equity-building homes for our rural communities.”

– Andrew Freear, Rural Studio Director

The Initiative is collaborating with a range of government, NGO, and industry partners to tackle the issue of the lack of housing that is affordable, both through the construction of high-performance homes and by lowering the financial barriers to home ownership, including mortgage requirements, insurance costs, zoning, and permitting challenges.

The Initiative currently has a variety of projects and collaborations underway across the Southeast, and we look forward to regularly sharing more details about our partners and continued progress over the coming weeks, months, and years. Stay tuned here to follow along!

Learn more about the Front Porch Initiative here.