Tom Darden on Making It Right in New Orleans

TreeHugger: Tell me a little bit about the selection process and how the finances work. How is it decided who lives in what house, and then how are they able to afford it in the end?

Darden: In terms of the selection of the families, we work with families who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward before the storm and who lost their houses. In some cases, we're actually building a home for a family on the lot where they used to live. And in other cases we've purchased properties through the state, so when a family who lost their home decided not to move back, they had an opportunity to sell that property to the state.

That's how we fill in the gaps--if you will--in the development of the neighborhood between the lots that we're building with families who own their property. We accept applications from families who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward. We work with each family on a case-by-case basis to determine their financial qualification. We've got a team of social workers and homeownership counselors on our staff, and our counseling program was developed by NeighborWorks America, one of the premier homeownership counseling agencies in the country.

It's an income-based program, so we look at what that family can afford. No family pays more than 30 percent of their income, including taxes and insurance, towards their housing costs. On average the contribution at closing from a family is typically about $75,000. Sometimes that's made up in the form of grants, but often by external financing sources like banks: traditional loan sources. We work with the clients to make sure that none of the loans are predatory, of course.

That $75,000 cash at closing helps offset the cost of the house, and then usually the difference between the resident's contribution and the sales price, which averages about $150,000, is made up in the form of a forgivable loan. So the longer the family lives in the house, the more of the loan that's forgiven.

That's how the financing works. In terms of the cost to build, it depends on whether we're building a prototype or whether we're building a house that we've built several times, but generally the cost is higher than the sale price. Our cost per square foot right now is about $150, not including land. In New Orleans, the average cost to build a traditional stick-built house in the Lower Ninth Ward would be about $130.

So right now we're at about a $20 per square foot premium. But again, these are LEED Platinum houses, and they're actually a lot safer as well. They're all elevated, as I mentioned. So when you factor the costs, there is certainly a bit of a premium, but we've only built 25 houses. So every house that we build, we're able to see inefficiencies that we can improve upon and ways to reduce costs.

TreeHugger: All this is in such stark juxtaposition to the whole FEMA trailer thing. Is that era over, or are there still FEMA trailers out there?

Darden: Well, the government is attempting to recall all the FEMA trailers, but there are still families that are living in them. In fact, we just finished a house for one of the first residents to move back to the Lower Ninth Ward who was living in a FEMA trailer for three years. Whenever we're able to haul away a FEMA trailer and replace it with a house, that's particularly meaningful. Certainly some of the families that we work with are living on the job site (it's actually about a 16-square-block area that we're building in). There are certainly some FEMA trailers here and there. Luckily most of them are gone now.

But then other families that we worked with were displaced all over the country, even as far away as Seattle, Washington. So it makes the case management program or the counseling program particularly difficult because a lot of it happens remotely. So a lot of the communications with the family is done via phone.

Actually, we fly them in twice during the process, and at one point during construction to walk through the house. It's a complicated process for sure, and it's too bad that these families had to live in such a toxic environment in the FEMA trailers for so long.

TreeHugger: We had Amanda Little on the podcast not too long ago. In her book, Power Trip, she tells the story of a Katrina survivor who lost her home and who is now living in a Make It Right home. This woman had never lived with solar panels before, and Amanda tells it so well, this woman describing how she meticulously goes up to her roof and mops off the solar panels to make sure they're operating at maximum efficiency. What are some of the other stories that you've gotten from people who live in the homes you've built?

Darden: Well just to be clear, you only have to clean your solar panels once a year. But I think I know which residence she was talking about; that particular woman has a rooftop deck. One of the things that some architects tried to do was to make the outdoor space even more usable. When it's really hot in the summer in New Orleans, being in the shade makes a huge difference. However, for most of the year, you can sit outside on the front porch, so some of the architects put rooftop decks on their houses.

Since they are all elevated--they were all raised high enough to be above the Katrina-level flooding--you get pretty high up. Some of the houses are elevated as high as eight feet off the ground. So, putting a rooftop deck on an elevated house gets you pretty high--you can actually see above the levees.

Generally New Orleans is situated below the levees, and so you never really get to see the water unless you're going over a bridge. But these families have porches on the top of their house, and they're able to get up there and, for the first time, really see their neighborhood in a new way, have a new connection to the street, a new connection to the community, and to the water.

So we try to look at water not as an enemy but rather as a resource that we can capture on site, that we can recycle for irrigating landscape, for example. We hope to be able to recycle stormwater for use within the house itself. However, that's currently prohibited by state code.

Living in these houses, families seem to have a new connection to their neighborhood, a new connection to their community. That's certainly a positive response that we've gotten. We have two families who had children with asthma, and since they've been living in Make It Right houses, their children don't need to take their asthma medication anymore, which is really inspiring. That type of example is anecdotal, certainly, but it's certainly inspiring to us as well.

TreeHugger: The Haitian earthquake was so devastating largely because of the built environment and the way that that responded to the event. Do you see any parallels between the post-Katrina devastation and the earthquake in Haiti?

Darden: I think there are a lot of parallels, absolutely, and parallels even in terms of the response of NGOs. Too often, outside agencies--governments or NGOs--go into an area and say: "this is the way this community should rebuild."

So that's certainly a negative parallel in terms of the response. Something that we tried to do early on was work closely with the community. So before we even really developed any plans for Make It Right, we started meeting with community leaders and the residents that had returned to the neighborhood once a week to hear their needs and get their feedback throughout the process. And so I certainly encourage people working in Haiti to do that, to listen first before mandating a particular type of response.

In terms of the devastation, I think that the devastation in New Orleans, as McDonough might say, was the result of a design failure. Improperly designed levees, improperly designed houses.

The houses that were in the area that we're rebuilding, they were slab-on-grade. Ranch-style houses built below sea level. And that doesn't make any sense. You're building in an area that's prone to flooding, and certainly susceptible to natural disasters like hurricanes. You should build a house that's designed for that particular environment.

The cause of some of the devastating effects during the Haiti earthquake certainly was because the buildings were built to a different standard. But hopefully some of what we're learning in New Orleans--whether it's about community engagement in a post-disaster recovery situation, or the process of designing for a particular environment--if we can take any of the lessons that we're learning and help share those them with folks in Haiti as they're struggling to recover, then I would hope that we'd be able to do so.

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