When the tiny Katrina Cottage debuted at the International Builders
Show in January 2006, it was hailed as a well-designed,
inexpensive, aesthetic solution to the housing shortage on the
ravaged Gulf Coast.
More than two years later, the cottage — the smallest version
of which is just 308 square feet — has fulfilled some of its
early promise. But it has also hit some roadblocks.
Tapping millions in federal recovery dollars, Mississippi
authorities are building and placing thousands of simplified
versions of the cottage, known in that state as "MEMA cottages"
after the state Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. But while
the agency has erected more than 1,800 cottages to date, it is
encountering stiff resistance from the very coastal cities where
housing needs are most urgent.
Officials with Bay St. Louis (pre-Katrina population: 8,200) have
been particularly vocal in their opposition. They say the MEMA
cottages bring down property values, hold little taxable value, and
pose a physical threat to larger traditional homes should the
region face another massive storm surge — and that's just the
"They are trailers. All they did was put HardiPlank on the outside,
and where the tongue was usually located, they put a porch over the
tongue," says James Thriffiley, an eight-term veteran of the Bay
St. Louis City Council. "It's not promoting development, and it's
not promoting employment" because local construction workers are
not needed to erect the cottages, unlike the case with stick-built
The council initially allowed the cottages only in parks occupied
by emergency trailers, Thriffiley said. Responding to pressure from
the state, the town later permitted them elsewhere — but
restricted them to people who owned a home destroyed by Katrina,
owned the land where the cottage would be placed, and had plans to
rebuild permanent homes. The rules have kept the number of cottages
in the city to less than 100.
"We didn't want to become a whole town of FEMA cottages," says
council member Bill Taylor.
In which "house" would you rather live? The Katrina Cottage
(top), designed as a practical alternative to the typical FEMA
trailer (bottom) for victims of Hurricane Katrina, may be too nice.
Though the cottages were designed as quick shelter for residents
fixing up their damaged homes, some community planners are
resisting the possibility that residents could convert the tiny
homes into permanent dwellings.
At the heart of the objections is the unanswered question of
whether the cottages — which are not required to meet federal
flood requirements when placed and are usually not elevated —
are intended to remain temporary or to become permanent.
While city officials want the cottages to remain for as short a
period as possible, MEMA authorities have said the cottages could
serve as long-term residences. That's also a theme sounded by the
cottage's designer, Marianne Cusato, who has called the cottages
"permanent emergency housing."
The Mississippi agency had wanted to allow tenants to buy the
cottages, then convert them to permanent homes by elevating them to
meet flood requirements, according to the Los Angeles Times. Not
surprisingly, city officials have been icy to that idea. Thriffiley
questions whether residents who need government assistance to
procure a cottage could find the dollars to elevate it. And he says
the city could lose vital federal flood compliance certification if
the cottages remain at ground level.
Mary Cormerio is professor and chairman of the University of
California - Berkeley's department of architecture and the author
of Disaster Hits Home: New Policy for Urban Recovery. She says the
Katrina Cottage might have received a more welcome reception from
authorities if it had been designed and marketed as a structure
that was easily expandable into a more traditional, expansive,
permanent home. While that idea may seem foreign to American ears,
she said, it is routine in other countries where, for example,
illegal shantytowns are converted into legal legitimate
"The fundamental problem with these cottages is that in the effort
to be a quick, temporary solution, they are not easy to adapt or
expand on," she says.
But even if that design possibility existed, she notes, the
government would need to make available dollars or assistance aimed
at helping people convert the homes from temporary to permanent
— including meeting flood requirements. That's not the
tradition in a system where public money tied to emergency housing
is readily available, but funds become far scarcer in normal
For those who protest the cottages, she says, "I think the fear is
that they will just become another slum, because there is no policy
for transition, financial or physical." — Aaron Hoover