Maintaining Kinship Networks

Challenge

In many rural areas, residents live on property passed down through generations. These parcels can contain several structures which house members of an extended, multi-generational family. These family members share many resources, including transportation, food, childcare, and elder care, which is critical to the resilience of the entire family. When, over time, some of these homes become substandard, displacing the resident to another location can have detrimental effects on the entire family.

Opportunity & Response

Replacement housing is a different type of development that lies in the space between repair and new construction. “Replacement” housing allows the builder to use the existing infrastructure on the site – such as utility connections, wastewater management systems, and driveways – thus reducing land development costs. This allows the kinship network to stay intact.

Rural Studio’s homes can offer a durable replacement, which is affordable to operate, maintain, and repair over time.

Implementation

Ree + Geraldine*

Mrs. Patrick + Ophelia*

Michelle + Idella*

Rev. Walker*

Rosie*

Wastewater Management: Off-Site

Challenge

The alternative to septic systems is most often the construction of a large-scale, centralized municipal sewerage system. Suitable for urban density, such infrastructure projects are extraordinarily cost prohibitive to build and maintain in low density rural communities and are traditionally not engineered to operate on a smaller community/rural settlement scale.

Opportunity & Response

In an effort to address the fundamental challenge faced by traditional infrastructure implementations, Rural Studio will serve as the location of a pilot decentralized wastewater treatment system demonstration project. The project consists of the installation and management of an innovative, clustered and decentralized wastewater treatment system that can be used to connect neighboring infrastructure in a single system that will collect, treat, and reuse water – effectively reducing maintenance costs for the entire community. 

Implementation

Wastewater Management: On-Site

Challenge

Due to the inability of traditional infrastructure strategies to service lower-density and distributed rural settlements, rural homeowners often do not have access to sewer systems and, therefore, must manage wastewater on-site via decentralized systems (i.e.: septic systems and drain fields). Depending on the topography and soils on the site, installing a legally permitted septic system can be cost prohibitive. From a regulatory standpoint, the inability to install a permitted septic system is often the single impediment to securing conventional lending required for new construction. 

Opportunity & Response

In 2017, the bipartisan “Rural Septic Tank Access Act” was passed as an amendment to the Farm Bill. While conceptually a step in the right direction, this funding fell short in two key areas: 1) it did not provide enough funding to cover the total cost of replacing existing substandard septic systems, and 2) it was designed to be delivered as an additional loan to the homeowner, increasing the total cost of construction as much as 20%, and thus making the required financing out of reach. Rural Studio provided public feedback on the program to our legislators, and in early 2020 they reintroduced the bipartisan “Decentralized Wastewater Grant Act of 2020” to both the House and Senate. This act proposes to allocate EPA funding as grants to homeowners (vs. loans) and increases the amount of individual funding available to cover the entire cost of construction.

Implementation

Clouded Title

Challenge

Heirs’ property or clouded title can prevent some homeowners from accessing financing to repair, replace, or build housing.

More than a third of Black-owned land in the South is passed down informally, rather than through deeds and wills. This is a custom that dates to the Jim Crow era, when Black landowners were excluded from the Southern legal system. Black homeowners still often believe this protects their land, but the Department of Agriculture has found that heirs’ property is the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss. Without formal deeds, families are cut off from federal loans and grants, including from FEMA, which requires that disaster survivors prove they own their property before they can get help rebuilding.

Nationally, FEMA denies requests for help from about 2 percent of applicants for disaster aid because of title issues. In majority-Black counties, the rate is twice as high, in large part because Black people are twice as likely to pass down property informally. In parts of the Deep South, FEMA has rejected up to a quarter of applicants because they can’t document ownership, and in In Hale County, FEMA has denied 35 percent of disaster aid applicants for this reason since March 2021.

Opportunity & Response

With input from Auburn University rural sociologists and congressional leadership provided by Alabama representatives, the 2018 Farm Bill expanded provisions for heirs to qualify for a Farm Service Agency (FSA) farm number which unlocks key programs within USDA. This action also led to 11 rural states (including Alabama) to further adopt the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which acknowledges other forms of documentation when heirs lack a clear title and provides due process protections to landowners facing a potential forced partition. 

Due to recent policy reversals, families living on heirs’ property will now be allowed to self-certify that they own their homes. FEMA will also accept letters from local officials and bills for home repairs as proof of ownership. The new guidelines will apply retroactively to Aug. 23, to cover damages from Ida and flooding in Tennessee. Additionally, there is legislation moving through Congress that will require FEMA to reopen cases going back several years.

Implementation

Vacant Property/Land Banking

Challenge

Many municipalities, especially urban ones, own a portfolio of vacant, abandoned, and/or tax-delinquent lots. These land-banked properties can be a burden for the municipality, as they must pay for upkeep of the properties without said properties generating any revenue.

Opportunity & Response

Many land banks offer property to not-for-profit housing providers for the development of affordable housing. This is beneficial to both the municipality and a potential homeowner. Developing housing on these vacant properties increases the available stock of housing while also increasing the municipality’s tax revenue.

Implementation

E. Myrtle

Carrabelle

Adapting to Site Conditions

Challenge

Many of the sites given to or purchased by nonprofit builders like Habitat for Humanity are not optimized for construction and can be costly to develop, so these lands remain in the organization’s portfolio, where the organization continues to pay property tax and maintenance costs.

Opportunity & Response

The smaller footprint and foundation type options of the Product Line Homes to negotiate a variety of site conditions and soil types.

Implementation

Stevens Street

Air Serenbe

Non-Conforming Parcels

Challenge

Non-conforming parcels are often small or irregularly-shaped, making them sub-optimal for construction and potentially in violation of modern zoning regulations. However, through either purchase or donation, many not-for-profit housing providers hold such land in their portfolio, where they continue to pay property taxes and maintenance costs. 

Opportunity

The benefits of utilizing non-conforming lots can range from infilling/densifying existing neighborhoods, expanding local tax base, and locating more housing near resources and services. The smaller footprint of the Rural Studio homes allow housing providers to introduce a new home prototype, potentially unlocking additional parcels and expanding the housing provider’s client base. As municipalities explore ways to provide attainable housing, harnessing non-conforming parcels can potentially increase access to housing while simultaneously increasing the local tax base.

Response

Auburn-Opelika Habitat for Humanity (AOHFH) built a series of homes in a local community but was unable to place homes on two parcels in the neighborhood, as the irregularly-shaped lots where too small for the footprint of their typical house prototype. 

Two oddly shaped property parcels showing home placement within property lines
With their small footprint, the Front Porch Initiative homes are able to utilize lots of unconventional size or shape. This allows houses to be constructed on sites that would otherwise be considered unbuildable.

By utilizing a two-bed, one bath Rural Studio home with a smaller footprint, AOHFH was able to fit the house within the existing setbacks, eliminating the need for a zoning variance. Also, while the homes address the street, a shed for garden tools was sited and designed to have a roof pitch that maximized solar orientation.

Implementation

Stevens Street