Oct 14, 2022 - Energy & Environment

New project builds disaster-ready affordable housing

A woman stands in front of a home.

A MiCASiTA home. Photo: Courtesy of Marcella Sáenz/cdcb

Two Texas-based nonprofits are developing disaster-resilient affordable homes in the Rio Grande Valley for low-income communities of color.

Why it matters: Organizations like these are working to mitigate the affordable housing crisis that emerges after disaster events like hurricanes — which human-caused climate change is making more intense.

The intrigue: The homes are touted as disaster-resilient — meaning they're built to withstand winds up to 130 miles an hour, or a Category 4 hurricane, and elevated at least 18 inches above floodplain, which is a typical required building code for cities across the country.

How it works: Developed by two nonprofits — "come dream. come build," or cdcb, and "buildingcommunityWORKSHOP," or bc — MiCASiTA is an affordable housing homeownership model.

  • Because each MiCASiTA dwelling is built in a factory with reduced material, labor and transportation costs, a home costs roughly 15% less than traditional wood-framed structures.
  • It's an incremental finance model — meaning people can build the size they want based on what they can afford — and has options for lower-cost mortgage products for households with lower credit scores.

The latest: Two prototypes of the model have been built, and four MiCASiTA dwellings are actively being developed, according to Nick Mitchell, executive director of cdcb.

  • The project was just awarded $3 million to expand to six new locations across the country and ramp up energy efficiency via JPMorgan Chase's newest philanthropic initiative to increase the supply of affordable housing for Black, Latino and Indigenous households in the U.S.

Zoom out: The nonprofits are looking to work in predominantly low-income communities of color to help mitigate racial inequities in U.S. homeownership — which are rooted in historically exclusionary housing policies like redlining.

  • 43.3% of Black Americans in the nation's 50 largest cities are homeowners while 72.1% of white Americans own their own houses, according to a 2022 analysis by LendingTree.

Yes, but: Disaster recovery and workforce housing designer Marianne Cusato, who is on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, told Axios that it's "very difficult" to build affordable, energy-efficient homes that will long-term withstand disasters.

  • "Nothing's perfect. There's not a silver bullet right now," Cusato told Axios. "That's part of the problem."

The backstory: MiCASiTA started out as RAPIDO, an emergency housing model that could be quickly built for lower-income families left unhoused following an extreme weather event.

  • Climate change means more of these are on the way. Increasing temperatures are fueling more intense hurricanes, heavier rainstorms, hotter heat waves and other extreme events — all of which amplify shortages in affordable housing.
  • "The climate crisis that we're in has more effect on low-income people than anyone is willing to talk about," Mitchell told Axios. "It is just extracting wealth that has been built up in Black and brown communities for generations now. It is literally disappearing because of a storm."

Between the lines: RAPIDO became MiCASiTA so the teams at cdcb and bc could get at the root of the post-disaster housing crisis that can leave low-income people without homes for years — which is a lack of affordable housing to begin with.

  • According to Mitchell, MiCASiTA's homeownership model is part of a "pre-recovery" process — maximizing community resilience to future storms.

The bottom line: Building energy-efficient, disaster-resilient affordable housing is a Herculean task — which, despite the odds, organizations like these are working to tackle.

  • "This planet will fail, and we will have people living on the street if we are not going to get together and figure out how we make better houses that can stand up under hurricanes and under fires," Mitchell told Axios. "And that can then also contribute to lowering our carbon footprint."
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