New Door to Affordable Housing Opens

Phillip Johnson, right, helps his mother, Phyllis, up stairs to see part of her new modular cottage, being built to replace her current home in Silver Spring.
Phillip Johnson, right, helps his mother, Phyllis, up stairs to see part of her new modular cottage, being built to replace her current home in Silver Spring. (Photos By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006

When Phyllis Johnson and her daughter, Zabrina, got a look inside their free new home yesterday, they delighted in the large windows that will let the sunlight pour in. Unlike their current home in Silver Spring, the ceilings weren't crumbling, the floors didn't sag and the eaves weren't rotting.

What the Johnsons didn't see: They had become the face of what some architects, developers and urban planners hope is the future of affordable housing born out of Hurricane Katrina's devastation.

The Johnsons received a "Katrina Cottage," a house designed to be built quickly and relatively inexpensively for New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents displaced by the 2005 storm. Designers said the same houses, made to be more attractive and of higher quality than most subsidized housing, also can be used nationwide for lower-income residents. The Johnsons' new two-bedroom, two-bath home is the first of its kind outside the hurricane zone.

After her dilapidated home on Michigan Avenue is torn down, the new house will be moved to the same tree-lined lot.

"I just really loved the windows . . . " Johnson, 59, said after seeing the inside of her new home for the first time yesterday. "When it snows, you could open the curtains, and in the summer, when the sun rises, it will fill with sunlight."

That was exactly what Steve Mouzon hoped to hear. Mouzon, who designed the Johnsons' home, said Katrina Cottage houses are designed to be a "FEMA trailer with dignity" for storm survivors who might end up in temporary housing for years. He said some Florida residents who lost homes during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 just moved out of their government trailers last fall.

He said he and other Katrina Cottage advocates also are working to combat the stigmas attached to both manufactured and affordable housing by making them more attractive. To make the Johnsons' new home appear larger than its 1,300 square feet, Mouzon included high ceilings and the big windows. He designed the front columns and porch railing to resemble those he saw on beautiful, old homes in Old Town Alexandria.

"I did a tour of the area for the things that people seemed to value most and love the longest," he said.

The Johnsons' home cost about $300,000, largely because it is a prototype. When manufactured on a large scale, it probably will cost about $150,000, organizers said. Ben Brown, a spokesman for the project, said organizers hope to have the Johnsons' home fully furnished by the time they move in, with donations from Home Depot, Restoration Hardware, Sears and other companies.

The house was built outside New Orleans and arrived in the Lyttonsville neighborhood off East West Highway and Grubb Road on Wednesday. Since then, a dozen workers from Louisiana and California worked through the night, and often in the rain, to get it ready. In place now is a 523-square-foot kitchen, family room and bathroom. After two more pieces are added, it will be 1,300 square feet, with an additional two bedrooms, a living room and a small courtyard.

The house made its debut yesterday during "Make a Difference Day," during which an estimated 3 million people do volunteer work across the country. The house was donated by Housing International Inc., a manufactured-housing company in California, and given to Johnson through a program of the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Volunteers from USA Weekend magazine, which co-sponsored the national day of service, helped Johnson move out of her home and into a nearby apartment, where she will live until her new house is finished.

The Johnsons came to the attention of Montgomery's housing department last year, when Zabrina Johnson, 40, called for help fixing their home.

Zabrina Johnson said she was laid off from her job a year ago and has recently been doing temporary secretarial work. She said her mother is disabled because of heart problems, diabetes and complications of two minor strokes.

Phyllis Johnson said she will miss the good times she had in her old home but not its headaches. "The time comes to move on and put that behind us and start fresh," she said.

The house will be open to the public weekends in November at the Gwendolyn E. Coffield Community Center, 2450 Lyttonsville Rd.

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