Road to Katrinaville

The idea of the Katrina cottage was always bigger than the house itself. It started with New Urbanist architects, who began drawing pictures of colorful...
by | March 31, 2009

The idea of the Katrina cottage was always bigger than the house itself. It started with New Urbanist architects, who began drawing pictures of colorful little homes shortly after the terrible hurricane season of 2005. Within months, a 308-square-foot prototype was the hot topic at the world's biggest homebuilders' show. Disaster planners took notice, too -- especially when "FEMA trailers" turned out to be a disaster of their own, with cramped spaces that made people sick from formaldehyde. Katrina cottages, by contrast, were livable, lovable and durable enough to withstand 150 mph winds. And the modular design could be expanded over time as a family's circumstances permitted. More than anything, the Katrina cottage was about practicality: The trim porches and pitched roofs represented an investment in something permanent -- crisis housing that could outlive the crisis.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency embraced this concept right away. Through a federal pilot program, MEMA designed its own one-, two- and three-bedroom versions of the cottage, and rolled 2,800 of them out along the Gulf Coast to people who were still stuck in trailers. Now, two years later, the state agency is asking cottage dwellers to make a choice. They can buy their cottages at bargain prices ranging from $500 to $10,000 -- depending on income -- and secure them on permanent foundations. Or they can move on, and MEMA will take their cottages back. MEMA's preference is for residents to buy the cottages and stay put, but support for this plan is shaky at the local level. Up and down the coast, weary residents and local governments, which control the zoning, are debating the Katrina cottage's existential question: Can these homes really be forever?

Local officials are reluctant to say yes. Some see the cottages as mere shotgun shacks on wheels, and argue that allowing them to stay in place will drag down property values. That's an odd case to make in neighborhoods where rebuilding has barely begun and abandoned lots are going to jungle. Nevertheless, localities have found language in their codes to back it. In Gautier, even the largest MEMA cottages fall short of a mandate that homes in residential areas be at least 1,325 square feet. Bay St. Louis and Waveland tried to force cottages into mobile-home parks or out of the city limits entirely. After the Mississippi Center for Justice rallied eight cottage residents to sue Waveland, most jurisdictions have begun agreeing to let people stay in their cottages if they want to. Still, there are tight restrictions. In Gulfport, cottage residents are not allowed to keep a unit on their own property if a landowner within 160 feet objects.

Mary Sherrouse, who lives alone in a tidy two-bedroom MEMA cottage in Waveland, doesn't see what the fuss is about. "Everyone who has one wants to keep it," she says. "Unless they've rebuilt." Sherrouse tried to rebuild, too, but her contractor botched the foundation. Now Sherrouse is considering buying her cottage instead. MEMA offered it to her for $547. She imagines making additions that would give her more living room and bedroom space. "My daddy built his house here in 1940," Sherrouse says. "I don't want to leave. It's home."

As Sherrouse weighs her options, MEMA is trucking away unpurchased cottages by the dozen. Some belonged to people who have rebuilt and, happily, don't need them anymore. Others were located in flood zones where the cottages were never meant to stay for good. For the time being, all are headed to temporary storage sites while MEMA figures out what to do with them. Mike Womack, MEMA's executive director, says he'd like to see all of the cottages find a home in one of the six counties Katrina raked the hardest. But if the locals won't take them, he'll offer the cottages to other parts of the state. "It makes no sense to have a unit sitting unoccupied," Womack says, "when we know we have housing needs throughout Mississippi."