The RAPIDO project hopes to revolutionize not only the way housing is built after disasters, but as a way to provide low-income housing everywhere in Texas.
(TNS) — The nation's top housing official recently toured the core of a house in Brownsville that holds the promise of returning people quickly to their homes after a major disaster. What he didn't know was that it had been partially put up in an afternoon by a group of unskilled teenagers.
The house inspected Monday by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro is part of a $2 million pilot project that envisions the construction of less-expensive, structurally sound housing within days of a disaster instead of years. Although hundreds of low-income homes have been rebuilt since Hurricanes Dolly and Ike laid waste to the Texas Gulf Coast in 2008, many families are still waiting for housing already funded with federal disaster money.
The RAPIDO project, to build 20 prefabricated homes in the Rio Grande Valley, is the first of two projects that its originators hope will revolutionize not only the way housing is built after disasters, but as a way to provide low-income housing everywhere in Texas. A similar $4 million project to build 20 homes in Harris and Galveston counties is in its early stages and expected to produce its first house by March.
The rapidly assembled structures could help communities recover more quickly in the wake of a disaster, according to Nick Mitchell-Bennett, executive director of the Community Development Corp. of Brownsville. "He was impressed that stuff like this was coming out of South Texas and not out of Harvard design school," Mitchell-Bennett said of Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who became HUD secretary earlier this year.
The use of unskilled teenagers to put up a house for Castro's inspection demonstrated the ease of construction, he said.
The biggest hurdle to rebuilding housing after a disaster is the snarl of government red tape — federal, state and local. In Texas, counties and cities are ultimately responsible and they usually have no experience in rebuilding housing after disasters, said John Henneberger, the co-director of the Texas Low Income Information Housing Service.
"Historically," Henneberger said, "it has not worked as efficiently as it should on any level."
The grain of an idea for the approach taken in the Rio Grande Valley sprang from Henneberger's experience assisting in the rebuilding of low-income housing after Hurricane Rita hit the Beaumont area in 2005. Those ideas this year won him a $625,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship, known as the genius award.
Henneberger's ideas resulted in the Legislature creating a special disaster housing panel in 2009 that was charged with creating the pilot project for the two regions.
The concept in both South Texas and the Houston area is to build a core unit with a kitchen, bathroom, living and sleeping area within six days. The houses can be expanded as time and money permit. The cost of a core unit in the Rio Grande Valley is about $15,000, compared to the $60,000 to $70,000 cost of Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers.
The key to success, said Mitchell-Bennett, is having everything pre-approved at all levels of government. "We are creating a system that could be placed in Galveston and, with minor tweaks, be run," he said.
The savings come from careful selection of materials that are strong but inexpensive, as well as by reducing labor costs; future occupants could be hired to put up the homes.
Government officials in disaster-prone areas could be trained well in advance and storm-prone areas identified so that permits could be promptly issued. Henneberger plans to present a package of proposed changes aimed at reducing paperwork delays to state lawmakers in January. Mitchell-Bennett said that efforts are also underway to streamline federal rules.
Henneberger wants the millions that FEMA typically spends on trailers and vouchers for temporary housing to instead be used to build the core units, which can then be expanded into full houses as time and money allow. The housing allows people to remain in the community and provide the labor necessary for rebuilding.
"A big part of getting people back into housing is that they are the labor force we need," Henneberger said.
The houses are designed so that sections can be stored for instant use as the manufacturing of new core units ramps up. The core units can be built by two or three workers in three days.
"I am very happy and we are all excited as a family because we are going to get a new home," said Norma Aldape, 39, of Mercedes, who is awaiting a new RAPIDO home along with her husband, Jose, 50, and their six children, ages 7 to 18. Aldape is especially pleased because she is working with the architects to choose a coral color scheme that suits her tastes.
The RAPIDO homes are designed to blend into the existing communities and avoid the cookie-cutter designs of traditional disaster homes, said Elaine Morales, architectural student with bcWorkshop architects in Brownsville.
The cost in the Rio Grande Valley, where one has been completed and six are under construction, is $65,000 to $72,000, far less than the $135,000 average cost of houses built after Ike, Henneberger noted.
In Harris and Galveston counties, the 20 houses will cost $130,000 to $150,000 each, said Chuck Wemple, chief operating officer for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The costs are higher than envisioned by Henneberger, but Wemple said construction costs are higher in the Houston area.
"What works in one part of the state may not work in another," Wemple said.
Henneberger said he was unable to work with the area council because they are using what he sees as a more traditional method of hiring a contractor. In the Valley, the local council of governments followed his recommendation of assembling a team of community organizations. Wemple said the Houston-Galveston Area Council also is working closely with community groups.
The projects could help address the housing crisis already afflicting Texas and Houston, where 40 percent of renters can't afford a modest two-bedroom apartment, according to the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.
Those involved in the RAPIDO project said it could help any low-income family afford a home.
"Put down the core," Mitchell-Bennett said, "and let them expand it as they finance it."
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