So What Ever Happened to Katrina Cottages?

©. Ben Brown

The Katrina Cottage originally conceived by New Urbanists including Marianne Cusato, Steve Mouzon and Bruce Tolar as a response to Hurricane Katrina; the little yellow version designed by Marianne Cusato inspired many people, including me, who saw it as a solution to the problems of affordable housing. I wrote at the time:

We are on the cusp of a revolution, where small, efficient and affordable houses on narrow lots in walkable neighbourhoods will be the new normal and the new hot commodity.

One of the people deeply involved in the movement was Ben Brown of Placemakers, who lived in the original model for a while. He taught us that it takes more than just a tiny house, but that it takes a town:

No problem feeding the private, nesting impulse with cottage living; but the smaller the nest, the bigger the balancing need for community.

Now, in a recent article in Placemakers, Brown looks back and asks: Remember that Katrina Cottages thing? Whatever happened to that? He recounts the struggles they faced trying to establish tiny house communities in the post-Katrina environment. It's sad but unsurprising for anyone who has been involved in trying to make tiny house communities work. After the huge positive response to the Katrina Cottage, they thought the concept was going to take off. A few prototype clusters were built but it was slow. Where the plan was to build 3,500, less than a hundred have been built. What happened?

To the question of why didn’t the Katrina Cottage idea sweep the nation: Heck, the idea didn’t even sweep Coastal Mississippi. The Tolar-Cloyd-Dial neighborhoods took seven years to critical mass, while proposals to do something similar in other locations were blocked by local planning boards, elected officials and neighbors, even when units could be had for free or for greatly reduced costs over building on site.

People wanted things the way they were.

Car-dependent, suburban-style neighborhoods with homes three or four times the size of KC designs were the normal most folks were anxious to return to. To many, smaller implied settling for less; and manufactured housing, no matter how sophisticated the design or the quality of materials, translated to “trailer park.”

And in the end, tiny houses work best as part of a community.

What makes living in a 400 to 800-sq.-ft. home work is access to lots of choices beyond its walls: Close-by schools, work places, shopping, entertainment, transit. Which means infill lots. Which likely means higher land costs and neighbors suspicious of housing that doesn’t look like theirs. Especially rental housing. And even more especially, manufactured housing.

Brown concludes that the idea is finally gaining traction, but that they expected too much, too soon. Read it all at Placemakers.


© Tolar’s Cottage Square/ Ben Brown

Over at the Lean Urbanism site, Bruce Tolar, who built some of the most successful tiny house communities, writes The Katrina Cottage Movement – A Case Study. He writes:

Lessons from the experience are humbling. They’re about realizing how difficult it is to manage the transition from business as usual, even when the usual business ignores a ready-made market.
It’s been the better part of a century since well-crafted bungalows, cottages and other small-scale dwellings defined “home” to most Americans — and since designers and builders produced them on a large scale. The metrics of housing value tend to be about size and price per square foot, with big being better and small being for losers. “Affordable” translates to either “subsidized,” which in turn translates to “projects,” or to “mobile homes,” which implies “trailer trash.” Either way, anything small and affordable threatens to lower market values. While this cannot persist as a permanent mindset, it’s nevertheless a perspective that continues to corrupt conversations about community planning and development.

That's why we still have zoning bylaws with minimum square footages and that ban trailers. Keep that trash out and keep those property values high. Perhaps this will change as aging boomers want to downsize (they have a lot of votes) and millennials can't afford to find a place to live. (Their grandparents have a lot of votes) . But it hasn't yet.