Stormy weather for Katrina Cottages: Pre-fab bungalows get cool reception in Gulf Coast communities

When the building industry got its first look at the Katrina Cottage, at the International Builders’ Show in January 2006, the bungalows seemed like a good solution to the hurricane housing crisis.

Since then, issues of permanence and appearnace have led to some road blocks for the rolling cottages. Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the dwellings have triggered city council debates, land use restrictions and bitter accusations. Two Mississippi cities, Waveland and Bay St. Louis, restricted the placement of the bungalows. In Bay St. Louis, Katrina cottages are permitted only in trailer parks or on land where the occupant has a building permit.

“We don’t need mobile homes to destroy the ambiance of our community,” said Jim Thriffiley, a Bay St. Louis city council man. All the hoopla around the Katrina Cottages ignores the fact that they’re basically “a mobile home with siding and a porch,” Thriffiley observed.

People who intend to live permanently in Katrina Cottages are not part of the city’s post-storm rebuilding effort, Thriffiley said, adding: “they’re not buying building materials. They’re not hiring workers. They’re not contributing to the community.”

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), which is administering the $281 million FEMA grant awarded in 2006, provides storm victims with one of several bungalow models ranging in size from 400 square feet to 840 square feet; some have two or three bedrooms. The larger models, renamed “Mississippi Cottages,” are based on the original prototype designed by Marianne Cusato, an architectural designer.

Cusato has also designed Katrina Cottages for Lowe’s, which began selling the bungalows a long the Gulf Coast in the fall of 2006. (The home improvement retailer now offers the blueprints and building material packages nationwide through its Website.) Anyone can purchase a Katrina Cottage from Lowe’s, but as with MEMA, the homeowner is responsible for getting building permits and sewer hook-ups from his or her local jurisdictions.

Some 1,490 cottages already have been placed during the lasts even months through the emergency housing program. The $281 million grant, originally in tended as a pilot program to provide better emergency housing, has funds remaining for another 1,510 bungalows. Eligible storm victims are matched up with a suitably sized cottage, which is offered by a number of suppliers, including Lowe’s.

Photos of the cottages of ten show them surrounded by white picket fences and landscaping. But most of the Katrina cottages placed by MEMA are not set on permanent foundations, and this detracts from the bungalow’s appearance, according to its designer. “I wouldn’t want to live next door to a house with wheels on it,” said Cusato, who characterized some of the neighbors’ objections as “completely valid.”

The Katrina Cottages sold through Lowe’s are being built to code and flood height elevations, the same as any other new structure along the Gulf Coast, Cusa to pointed out. Many of the designs can be expanded with additional rooms. “We have one model that goes up to 1,800 square feet,” she said. Building materials are delivered in stages, and the bungalows, once built, have a more established look.

STILL WAITING IN LOUISIANA

While Mississippi received $281 million from the federal government for its hurricane housing project, Louisiana got a $75 million grant to resettle storm victims into Katrina Cottages. To make the money stretch further, the state decided not to place bungalows on individual lots, but to cluster them together on government-owned land. As a result, Louisiana may avoid much of the community backlash experienced by neighboring Mississippi.

But Louisiana’s program has not been without its own roadblocks and controversies. In-fighting between the governor’s office, state agencies and a private consortium of developers delayed the project for more than a year, and the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency is just now ready to break ground on its first project, an installation of 75 bungalows at Jacks on Barracks, the state’s National Guard headquarters. The first group of “Louisiana Cottages,” based on a design by Marianne Cusato, are expected to appear in May. Home improvement retailer Lowe’s is one of the partners in the venture.

MEMA is also working on “transitioning a lot of the [existing cottages] into perm anent housing,” said Mike Womack, MEMA’s executive director.

Some Mississippi jurisdictions are welcoming the cottages. One such city is Biloxi, Miss., where the Mississippi Center for Justice, a public interest law firm, is headquartered. Senior attorney Reilly Morse has been working on behalf of storm victims who left their FEMA trailers but couldn’t find a suitable site for a Katrina cottage. He, too, blames misconceptions among local residents.

“People see axles under these structures and they think, ‘That’s a trailer. My property value is going to go down.’”

Morse doesn’t believe that the cottages will affect the look or ambiance of towns like Bay St. Louis. “I don’t know where this snobbery comes from down here,” he said. “We’ve always had trailers.”