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For Affordable Housing Architects, a Call to ‘Workshop Your Way to the Answer’

Community engagement and collaboration are the keys to creating affordable housing that the entire neighborhood adopts as home, as seen in one New Orleans development

By Charles Linn, FAIA

Michael Willis, FAIA, opened his Thursday AIA Convention session on Faubourg Lafitte, a residential project currently under construction in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood, by stressing the importance of collaboration in building such a project. In the session (called “Rebirth of Treme Lafitte Neighborhood Housing in New Orleans”), he said working with a broad coalition of stakeholders is possibly the most important thing that architects and planners can do.

His firm, San Francisco-based MWA Architects (and New Orleans firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, their partners on the project) designed the affordable and low-income housing complex whose first phase just opened. The site was master-planned by UDA.

Faubourg Lafitte replaces the Lafitte housing project, which opened in 1941 and was largely occupied when Hurricane Katrina struck the city. The New Orleans City Council voted to allow HUD to demolish the original Lafitte projects in 2007. It contained 896 housing units spread out over 57 buildings. Lafitte was not subject to the deep flooding that destroyed other parts of New Orleans, and many felt strongly that the buildings should have remained and been renovated, as opposed to being demolished. Others wanted the housing destroyed, but did not want to be displaced.

This controversy meant taking input from many stakeholders, including local government, citizens advocacy groups, public and private financiers, HUD, developers, and other groups responsible for securing financing, like Enterprise Community Partners and Providence Community Housing.

“Listen first,” Willis said. “Then design. Workshop your way to the answer. Think out into the neighborhood, beyond the property line. The community told us they wanted these things: Mixed-income, sustainable, inclusive housing, built around existing schools and safe community spaces. They wanted restoration of the historic street grid, which was blocked when Lafitte was constructed. They wanted preservation of the Tremé housing stock of shotguns, camelbacks, singles, and doubles. And, streetlighting and off-street parking.”

UDA masterplanned the site, did many concept designs, and held many of the workshops where citizens thoughts were made known. 

Ultimately, 517 units of housing will be fit into the footprint of Lafitte. The site is a slender 27-acre wedge squeezed between Lafitte Street and Orleans Avenue in the heart of Tremé, one of the city’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods. The street grid is an extension of the French Quarter, running roughly southeast to northwest.

The just-completed first phase has 134 units. They range in size from between 740 and 1470 square feet. More homes and apartments are already under construction, and eventually a building containing 100 units of senior housing will also be built on the site. An additional 1,000 housing units will be built throughout Tremé. This will include new construction on infill sites as well as renovated homes.

The Faubourge Lafitte homes and apartments fit into the neighborhood’s historic context of shotgun houses and Creole cottages. But, challenges include creating new buildings that respond to the historic context of the neighborhood authentically without appearing fake.

“Details matter,” said Willis. The homes have high ceilings, doors, and windows of the right scale, the range of decorative elements. The buildings employ traditional, vernacular cross-ventilation.

The new buildings are not inexpensive. Windows, which must be able to withstand hurricane debris flying toward them at 50 miles per hour, cost $4,000 per dwelling unit, and are also protected by shutters. “But,” he said, “we save a great deal of money by not having to purchase the land.”

Willis concluded with his recipe for creating successful new housing, particularly on the sites of old public housing that has been demolished. “First,” he said, challenging the audience, “you have a responsibility to build it better than what you replaced. Second, you must create a collaboration; a broadly configured working group with a commitment to the neighborhood surrounding your site, not just to the site itself. You are going to need them. Third, look beyond your own job description and become an advocate for the neighborhood. This is not just about your site. What you do can extend far beyond it.

“And finally,” he said, “use the memory of the place to make its rebuilding authentic to the residents.”

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