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What one group's experiments designing affordable housing in rural America show

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The United States has a housing crisis. Now, you've probably heard that before, often in the context of cities. But the thing is rural communities also don't have nearly enough affordable homes. Auburn University has spent the last 30 years trying to solve the rural housing crisis through architecture. The Gulf States Newsroom's Stephan Bisaha takes us to Alabama's Black Belt.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: The Black Belt is this stretch of Southern land named for its rich, black soil. It's also where Reggie Walker grew up.

REGGIE WALKER: I have a lot of memories of sneaking out the house, going down the woods, (laughter) and getting in a lot of trouble.

BISAHA: Care to share that kind of trouble?

WALKER: No, no, no, no, no. I got to keep that secret (laughter).

BISAHA: Specifically, he grew up in Alabama's Hale County. It's a rural spot with about 15,000 people. It's also a place where a quarter of residents live below the federal poverty line.

WALKER: The biggest thing about rural area and housing is first of all, because of the poverty here in Alabama, most houses are passed down generation to generation to generation. But unfortunately, because people don't have a lot of income, the houses actually become dilapidated with people still living inside of them.

BISAHA: That's basically what happened to Walker. By the time he inherited his old childhood home, it was falling apart.

WALKER: It was so dilapidated that I could actually take my hands and tear it down.

BISAHA: This is, like, loose board just, like, hanging that you're just pulling off the walls.

WALKER: Bingo.

BISAHA: That's where Auburn University's Rural Studio stepped in. It's an architecture school trying to answer this important question. How do you make rural homes that are affordable and that will last? They do that by building homes for free for people like Walker. And in exchange, the students get to test out their designs.

WALKER: Well, I told them the only thing I needed was a roof over my head and a place to sleep and a place take me a bath. And this is what they gave me, which is absolutely wonderful.

BISAHA: Walker got that bedroom and bathroom. And he got a roof, too, but that's where the students went experimental.

RUSTY SMITH: None of the other parts of the house touch that roof.

BISAHA: Rusty Smith is the associate director at the Rural Studio. And yeah, Walker's roof does not touch the rest of the house. Imagine the roof kind of like a carport. The actual rooms are parked underneath with their own roofs, but that main roof, meant to take the brunt of those tough Alabama storms - that's not touching any other part of the house. It is a strange way to build a home, but it's meant to solve one of the biggest challenges with rural housing. While city homeowners might move to a bigger home when their family grows, rural homeowners are more likely to stay put and add onto the house they have, says Smith.

SMITH: Because there is no real inventory to go buy another piece of property.

BISAHA: Constant renovations often mean cutting into and damaging the roof. And that's the idea behind the detached roof. The house can be expanded, changed, added onto.

SMITH: Over and over and over and over and over again without ever compromising the kind of big roof structure that protects the whole thing.

BISAHA: The school has tried other experiments over the last 30 years, like building homes with local trees. And they've learned lessons, like how building affordable homes is not the same as building cheap.

SMITH: Maybe even sometimes getting folks in a house that actually costs more to build is actually what's the most affordable.

BISAHA: Because a more energy-efficient home might raise the monthly mortgage, but if it lowers utility costs by even more, well, that's a win. The Rural Studio recently started expanding beyond the Black Belt. Last year, the studio worked with partners like Habitat for Humanity in a half dozen states by offering their rural housing designs meant to last. For NPR news, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Hale County, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHIANNON GIDDENS' "MOUNTAIN BANJO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephan Bisaha
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