Forget FEMA Trailers: Here’s How to House People in a Hurry

“We don’t need to wait for a hurricane to hit. We can get started with the recovery right now.”

Maria Cordero and her family in front of their completed RAPIDO home.

Photo from Building Communities Workshops.

When Hurricane Dolly hit Brownsville, Texas, in 2008, Esperanza Avalos was at the home she shared with her daughter, three grandchildren, and her dying husband. Like most homeowners in the rural Luz del Cielo colonia, less than a half-mile from the U.S.-Mexico border, the Avaloses had built the house themselves, adding new bedrooms to accommodate their multigenerational family as money allowed.

Dolly’s 85 mile-per-hour winds shattered windows, shifted the floor precipitously and cracked the roof in places where rooms had been adjoined. “Everything was drenched,” Avalos says. “Then came the termites, eating the house from the inside.”

Avalos, whose husband passed away four days after the storm, sought help restoring her home. In doing so, she became a participant in a pilot program that not only seeks to produce temporary-to-permanent housing quickly after disasters, but one that may also point the way to a broader solution for families like hers who, out of necessity, build their homes one step at a time.

Avalos had first applied for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Dolly. But like tens of thousands of low-income Rio Grande Valley residents in the aftermath of the storm, she was denied assistance because the agency claimed the damage to her house was because of “deferred maintenance.”

She next turned to the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB), a nonprofit housing organization that had recently launched a pilot program, called RAPIDO. RAPIDO was replacing disposable FEMA trailers with a small-but-livable housing “core”—a kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedroom. The structure was specifically designed so more bedrooms could be added incrementally once a second round of government funding came through.

Eventually, 20 such homes—including the extra bedrooms—were completed through the RAPIDO program, each in under six weeks and for about half the cost of federal replacement houses. The CDCB envisions building hundreds of these temporary-to-permanent houses after disasters, extending limited recovery funds to more residents while getting them into finished homes in weeks rather than years.

“We don’t need to wait for a hurricane to hit. We can get started with the recovery right now.”

In May 2018, it plans to launch a second initiative called Mi Casita, taking the incremental building approach of RAPIDO beyond hurricane recovery. Such an option is desperately needed in a place like the Rio Grande Valley, a border region at the southernmost tip of Texas, where tens of thousands of residents live in decaying houses, trailers, and RVs that pose health and safety risks. “We already have a disaster every day in the colonias,” says CBCB’s executive director, Nick Mitchell-Bennett. “We don’t need to wait for a hurricane to hit. We can get started with the recovery right now.”

A decade after Dolly, Avalos now lives in a tidy, tan-and-red two-toned RAPIDO house on the same lot in Luz del Cielo where she lived with her husband for 12 years. Her house is proof-of-concept for an approach to not only transform housing after a disaster, but to create solid, safe and permanent homes in communities confronting pervasive poverty. “Before, we’d fix one part of the house, and another part would leak because everything shifted,” Avalos says. “I won the lottery with this house.”

The RAPIDO program was originally conceived in response to the snail’s pace of rebuilding efforts for low-income residents after Hurricane Rita hit Houston in 2005. “We were appalled by the initial nine-month delay—which in retrospect was actually lightning fast compared to Hurricanes Ike, Dolly, and Harvey,” says John Henneberger, executive director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TLIHIS).

After Rita, TLIHIS spearheaded a housing design competition. The winning temporary-to-permanent modular design came from Dallas-based BC Workshop, a nonprofit architectural firm. After Dolly, BC Workshop opened a Brownsville office and began working with the CDCB to turn the concept into action.

“Our goal with RAPIDO was to do it fast and cheaply, but also for the house to reflect who the family is, rather than ‘this is just a disaster recovery project,’” says Elaine Morales, the architect with BC Workshop who designed the homes.

“The first step is to help you build a structure that is safe and sanitary and pleasing to you”

The 432-square-foot core of the RAPIDO homes uses pre-fab panels designed so the home can be finished in a week without heavy machinery and by a team of two framers, an electrician, and a plumber.

Before and during the core construction process, clients meet with the architect to make choices about floor plans and design details. “What was interesting was that people didn’t complain that the core was small,” Morales says. “What they really wanted was to stay on their lot, for their kids to be close to their school, and to have the same commute to work. They were more concerned about the design of the permanent part of the concept.”

The new Mi Casita program will explore how to apply the RAPIDO incremental building model more broadly in communities such as Brownsville, where thousands of low-income homeowners living in dilapidated housing can’t qualify for conventional mortgages.

Mi Casita will respond to these challenges by pairing clients with a CDCB financial counselor who will help them improve their credit profiles so they can qualify for a low-interest loan to build a 600-650 square-foot core, which costs only about $35,000. While clients work with a BC Workshop architect to design floorplans for future additions, they’ll team with the counselor to develop a financial plan.

“The first step is to help you build a structure that is safe and sanitary and pleasing to you,” the CDCB’s Mitchell-Bennett says. “Then, when you’re ready to add, we have a financing mechanism to help you do that, and the floor plans already prepared that will not jeopardize the strength and engineering of your current home—so it won’t leak when it rains.”

Donate to YES!

Henneberger points out that people in many parts of the country, as well as in the Rio Grande Valley, already build homes incrementally. “Why should people evolve to fit government’s vision of what a housing program should be, instead of housing programs evolving to fit people’s vision of how they need to live? Mi Casita is an attempt to reinvent that.”

On a tour through her home, Avalos shows off each design choice she made in consultation with the architect. “They asked me about the paint colors I wanted, the floors, the cabinets, the closets, everything. I got to choose,” she says. “What I really liked about all the designs was that they were all hurricane-resistant. This house won’t be torn apart like our last one. It’s built to last.”