A few years ago, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency donated 26 beautiful cottages to the city of Greenwood. The cottages, which were originally designed as homes for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, remain in pristine condition.
Unfortunately, they have also remained empty. But that will soon change as the city has partnered with The Greenwood-Leflore Fuller Center for Housing to turn the cottages into new homes for families in the impoverished Baptist Town neighborhood of the city.
They have sat unused because the city needed approval from the state legislature and governor to let The Fuller Center do the work of setting the cottages upon permanent foundations in the neighborhood and holding the affordable mortgages for their soon-to-be owners.
On Monday, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a law approving the plan, a measure that passed the state’s House of Representatives 120-2 and Senate 51-0.
“We’ve been dealing with this long enough, and we’re ready to get these folks into these houses,” said Elizabeth Powers of the Greenwood-Leflore Fuller Center, which will install 11 cottages in Phase 1 and the rest as the city acquires more lots. “It has been a very depressed area forever. And this is just going to be a real, real face-lift for them.”
Another person who is thrilled to see the project green-lighted is Emily Roush Elliott, who came to Greenwood as a Rose Enterprise Architectural Fellow co-hosted by the Greenwood Leflore Carroll Economic Development Foundation and the Carl Small Town Center out of Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture Art + Design. Elliott worked hard to explain the project to lawmakers and other officials who had questions or concerns.
“This project is the result of a strong partnership among multiple groups in Greenwood and even beyond Greenwood,” she said. “It’s a big commitment from the city. It’s a big step toward the larger Greenwood community showing that they do value this community that had been economically left behind.”
How left behind? Elliott reels off a litany of statistics she calls “staggering” and, yet, “on the optimistic side” — 24 percent unemployment, 28 percent graduation rate and an average household income of about $11,000 in the Baptist Town community of about 700 residents.
“It’s like this little island in the middle of Greenwood,” she said. “It’s got all these devastating statistics, but then there’s this spirit that completely opposes that.”
That spirit, coupled with the opportunity to take a holistic approach as project manager for the Baptist Town neighborhood revitalization, is what led her to seek out the fellowship in Greenwood.
“A lot of projects you want to do more than just housing, but you don’t get to,” she said. “But I get to do a lot more. Last year we did sidewalks and streetlights. We did a small park, did a large park, a playground, community activities, small-business education. We get to do a lot more than housing. That’s something that I’ve professed for a long time — that any sort of healthy neighborhood revitalization project is more than one or two or three components — it’s a multifaceted approach.”
Still, Baptist Town’s most obvious visible issue is a lack of decent housing. That is why Elliott’s first order of business upon coming to Greenwood was to find a way to put those empty Katrina cottages to use. It did not take long for her to learn about The Fuller Center.
“I said that the first thing we needed to do was to find a viable construction partner and a viable mortgage partner,” she recalled. “Asking around Greenwood, all fingers pointed to The Fuller Center.”
Though the Katrina cottages are small and designed to be quickly constructed, they also were designed with high standards to meet and surpass building codes anywhere in the United States. They also are designed to be attractive complements to existing neighborhoods.
“They’re designed to a much higher standard than your typical home,” Elliott said. “They have 2-by-6 walls instead of 2-by-4s, which significantly increases the strength and most importantly the insulation and energy-efficiency. The metal standing-seam roof is a higher quality than I’ve ever used on any building, let alone a low-income, affordable-housing project. A lot of thought went into understanding how these could meet the highest code from all sorts of technical standpoints but also how’d they be perceived as more than a trailer, more than something temporary.”
Monthly payments on the zero-percent-interest, 15-year mortgages are expected to be in the $120-$180 range with an additional $60-$120 in property taxes and insurance. Though the cottages themselves are donated, costs to place them in Baptist Town include land, foundations, driveways and steps, along with mechanical, electrical and plumbing connections.
Just days after the project got final approval from the state legislature, it got another boost when volunteers with the Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure made Greenwood the stop for a workday during last week’s spring ride down The Natchez Trace Parkway.
“They were great,” Powers said. “They just did an outstanding job.”
“You all had great timing!” Elliott said. “It was so neat to see all these volunteers who are dedicated and we can have construction days and get to do the things that I’ve typically done on affordable housing projects instead of battling the legislature. It was a great event.”
While in Greenwood, the Bicycle Adventure cyclists built steps for some of the cottages that will soon be placed in Baptist Town.
“It was really cool to see what they’ve got planned,” Bicycle Adventure leader Melissa Merrill said. “They’re really great houses. They’re really well-built. They’re small, but their simple, decent, nice-looking homes. We also got to drive through Baptist Town, which to me reminded me of a developing country. To be able to take some of those people out of those places and put them in something simple and decent for very little money is very cool. We got to build something pretty tangible — the steps to get into these houses. They were so well organized that we were able to get a lot of steps built in very little time, which made the riders happy.”