CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Less than one month before hurricane season begins in the Gulf Coast region there are still thousands of families who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina last summer living in mobile homes that are neither secure nor permanent.

Housing rehabilitation and design experts say that while mobile homes were the wrong solution to Katrina’s wrath, which destroyed or severely damaged some 500,000 homes, they now pose a new problem as this year’s storm season gets underway.

“People in mobile homes are in a transition where they are not in an emergency (situation) but still are not moving forward with their lives either,” said New York architect Marianne Cusato, principal of Marianne Cusato Architects.

Cusato’s proposed alternative to the trailers dispersed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is to build 300-square-foot cottages that later can be integrated into the resident’s permanent housing. The cottages, which are more attractive than emergency trailers, can be built for less than $35,000 and constructed much faster.

The cottages can be site built by individual contractors or factory built and delivered to the site prefabricated, and there are several design options.

The design for the Katrina Cottage was first unveiled at the Mississippi Renewal Forum last fall and it was showcased at the National Association of Home Builders’ International Builders Show in January in Orlando, Fla.

The Katrina cottage is still an idea at this point, Cusato told reporters last week, and it was created to start a dialogue about a better solution.

“A lot of possibilities were born out of this tragedy,” she said, including a new way of thinking about affordable housing.

Cusato believes her cottage prototype can create more dignified affordable housing options that may be similar to Sears Roebuck mail-order homes from the early decades of the 1900s.

While showing the cottage prototype at a recent home builder event, she said, many people were impressed with the space and said they’d like to vacation in one. Cusato resisted the idea at first, but later realized that if people found the home inviting and attractive it could mean that emergency and affordable housing for once could shed its long-held image of low-level housing.

The architect expects the first cottage to be ready for a Gulf Coast family to move in this summer.

Meanwhile, Habitat for Humanity has already begun constructing new homes, though the number pales in comparison with how many are needed.

More than eight months after Katrina hit, about 300,000 families are still without homes, said Ken Meinert of the Habitat for Humanity. In that time, the grassroots housing organization has boxed and shipped 195 homes to affected areas and has more than 200 homes scheduled for assembly and shipment.

About 195 more homes are under construction in the Gulf Coast, Meinert said.

Some of the challenges Habitat for Humanity has faced in helping families rebuild, he said, are problems acquiring buildable land, changes with building codes and flood-plain elevations and finding volunteer housing.

The organization, which has built more than 200,000 houses around the world, aims to build 1,000 homes for Katrina victims by summer 2007 and continue with long-term building efforts as long as funding and resources allow.

Each year the National Association of Realtors works with Habitat for Humanity on a local home in the city where the trade group holds its annual convention. This year, NAR will meet in New Orleans and plans to announce some opportunities for Realtors to collaborate with Habitat building efforts, according to an NAR spokesperson.

Even as groups like Habitat have moved along in helping families rebuild their homes and lives, many officials still argue whether rebuilding in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast makes sense long term.

Ed Olsen from the University of Virginia has compiled information on available rental housing units and found that the vacancy rate was at a historic high when Katrina hit – especially in the South. Cost-wise, placing families in these rentals makes more sense than continuing to house them in hotels and mobile homes, he found.

“My conclusion was that we should provide (the poorest) families transportation to another area and Section 8 vouchers so they could start their lives somewhere else,” said Olsen, who studies low-income housing.

More than 1 million rental units in the South rent for less than $700 per month, Olsen discovered.

“Using the existing stock of rental housing would’ve save billions of dollars,” Olsen told a group of reporters on Friday, adding that evidence also points to housing vouchers as a better solution than construction. And even top officials at FEMA have come to this conclusion, he said, albeit too late.

“Construction programs do not perform better than housing vouchers in any respect,” he said.

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