However, a number of local architects, even ones who endorse UNOP, think rebuilding every neighborhood is both unsafe and unrealistic. They believe the city should be consolidated to use resources and services more efficiently. “UNOP has some very good points, but everyone dances around the real problem,” says Marcel Wisznia, AIA [see profile: marcel wisznia, aia]. “The city needs to shrink.” Given the strong ties between New Orleanians and their neighborhoods, though, such a plan may never have gathered enough popular support to survive the way this one has so far. At the end of June, the Louisiana Recovery Authority approved a wide-ranging city renewal plan that incorporates UNOP, opening the door for New Orleans to access $117 million in state-held Community Development Block Grant funds.
In the meantime, New Orleans' rebuilding is occurring on a case-by-case basis, rather than citywide. “There still are no cranes in the sky,” says Melissa Urcan, executive director of AIA New Orleans. But with Road Home payments coming in, many homeowners feel ready to hire architects for remodeling projects or new houses. “People are finally getting money for small residential projects,” Urcan asserts. “The architecture field is going to get overwhelmed. We're right at the beginning of the overload.” The Katrina Index reports that Orleans Parish authorized 73 new single-family homes in April—the highest number since before the storm. “It's a pretty good time to be a young architect here,” says Byron Mouton, AIA, whose studio has several custom homes in progress [see profile: byron mouton, aia].
Farther to the east, the ripest opportunities for residential architects seem to lie in community planning and multifamily work. “In the Biloxi area, there's going to be a much stronger market for multifamily and attached housing,” says market research consultant Laurie Volk of Clinton, N.J.-based Zimmerman/Volk Associates, noting the extra cost of building single-family houses according to new codes. High-end custom work in coastal Mississippi, though not completely absent, has proven scarcer so far. “I haven't seen a lot of beach houses come back,” says Unabridged Architecture's Anderson. “For people who want to build big houses, it's hard to get insurance and financing.”
New Orleans, too, could use more multifamily housing, according to real estate appraiser Craig Davenport of Cook, Moore & Associates in Baton Rouge. “The sheer demographic numbers of what was destroyed indicate that [New Orleanians] need more housing,” he says. But many multifamily developers who saw the city as a golden opportunity post-Katrina have thought again. “Some projects are not moving forward because of construction costs and insurance,” says Henry Charlot, director of economic development for the Downtown Development District, a nonprofit charged with creating and sustaining New Orleans' downtown area. To cover these increased costs, developers are also turning planned condominiums into apartments or retail so they can capture tax credits designated for rental properties. Local developer Sean Cummings, for example, has reluctantly converted an on-the-boards condo building into apartments, citing historic rehabilitation tax credits as his only financial option. “The situation is very directly shaping the behavior of the developers and will yield an outcome that's not good for New Orleans: an abundance of rental housing,” he says. “You don't have to be [visionary developer] James Rouse to know that a community is far better off with a high percentage of homeownership.”
Another popular Big Easy financing option is the state low-income housing tax credit. “I'm working with quite a few developers who are thinking of doing low-income housing in New Orleans,” Davenport says. No one can deny the need for affordable housing in this poverty-ridden city. Insurance costs have sent rents skyrocketing: the fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment, defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is $836 (compared with $578 pre-Katrina). In a controversial move, the HUD-run Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) shuttered four of the city's 10 public housing projects after Katrina, declaring them too damaged to be inhabited. This action surprised many local architects, who believe the low-rise, circa 1940s brick structures should be renovated. “They're very sound buildings,” Urcan reports. HANO plans to replace them with mixed-income housing, but first it must defend itself against a lawsuit filed by Advancement Project, a nonprofit group that says HUD and HANO are violating public housing residents' rights. (A court date is set for November.)
Prefab provides another potential solution to the Gulf Coast's emergency and permanent housing needs. “It's a resource-efficient way to build, especially in a market where there's very little labor available,” Anderson says. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) concurs. Using a grant from FEMA's Alternative Housing Pilot Program, the agency this summer made two modular residences—the Park Model and the Mississippi Cottage—available to thousands of randomly selected FEMA trailer residents. The units are meant to serve as emergency housing, but occupants eventually will have the option to buy them and turn them into permanent homes. The MEMA program will also include GreenMobile, a third modular model whose adaptation to MEMA's requirements is still in progress [see full story].
here and now
As time passes, a sense of nervous expectancy builds along the Gulf Coast. Current residents and hopeful returnees wait to see what the next hurricane will bring, which way the real estate market will go, whether local businesses will rebound. They fear that irresponsible land use will lead to sprawl and a loss of the region's distinct cultural identity. They feel frustrated by what they see as misrepresentation by the national media. In New Orleans, a pronounced distrust in the government prevails, along with a faith in the power of grass-roots initiatives. “New Orleans is going to come back from the bottom up, not top down,” says Goody Clancy's Dixon.
Right now, all residents of this battered region can do is put their heads down and work on rebuilding their homes, commu nities, and livelihoods. Every returning neighbor, every visiting tourist, and every reopening business represents a small victory for those counting on a Gulf Coast renaissance. Mouton, talking about New Orleans, echoes the same sentiment expressed on every front porch from there to Mobile, Ala. “It's not back to normal here,” he says. “But it's still a beautiful city.”