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Of all the images that capture the horrors of Hurricane Andrew, there may be few more enduring than those that depict the heaps of mangled metal and trash where mobile home parks once stood. But even in the days just following the storm, as residents scrambled through the wreckage of their homes, trying to recover shards of their past, mobile home retailers reported that sales were brisk.
With this sobering news in mind, Miami architect and renowned town planner Andres Duany volunteered to design an inexpensive, easily built, sturdy alternative to mobile homes, which for many South Dade residents have long been the only form of low-income, affordable housing available. "The vast majority of what's down in South Dade will be built exactly as before," Duany remarks. "But mobile homes is one area that is open for redesign. The question is: How do we rebuild mobile home parks to make excellent and durable communities?"
Initially, Duany and his staff produced plans for clusters of one-story, interlocking units that would fit into existing mobile home tracts. Each apartment would have its own small internal courtyard, a private front yard, one to three bedrooms, and one or two bathrooms. The structures would be composed of concrete blocks, and each unit would boast a precast facade with elegant detailing. All the apartments would border common areas, facilitating the sense of community that has traditionally characterized mobile home parks.
While the basic design of the replacement homes remained the same, Duany has gradually altered the plan's details as he has learned more about South Dade's working-class residents, particularly the migrant laborers from the Caribbean and Latin America. "The first changes happened when we actually realized we were designing for poor people," the architect admits.
Indeed, the project has presented a brand-new set of socioeconomic challenges for Duany. During the past decade, he and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, have established themselves in the international architecture world with their visionary approaches to modern residential development. In the face of endless suburban sprawl, Duany and Plater-Zyberk have been designing mixed-use communities with a focus on pedestrian traffic and social interaction, such as the celebrated "planned town" of Seaside in the Panhandle. But middle- to upper-income buyers populate those enclaves, not the poorer classes.
In recent weeks, Duany has eliminated the idea of a two-bathroom apartment, removed dishwashers from the layouts, and replaced air conditioners with overhead fans and a system of vents designed to move air through the house. Revised drawings also include larger courtyard porches to accommodate outdoor cooking, Duany says, the preference of many Caribbean and Latin American immigrants. In addition, the newer designs incorporate the idea that the master bedroom in a crowded household is often the smallest bedroom; the larger bedrooms are usually packed full of children.
Outside the apartments, Duany has replaced the originally planned grassy yards with sidewalks and common areas of hard-packed earth, which require little maintenance. The proposed community also includes a soccer field, crafts workshops, several shops, a meeting hall, and communal laundry rooms instead of individual washers and dryers. By redesigning the layout and providing a garden and modern household amenities for each unit, Duany asserts, such plans could be adapted for a community of middle-class retirees, common denizens of Dade's mobile home parks.
Duany's ideas arise at a time of earnest governmental discussion about the future of mobile homes in South Dade. Last month, Homestead imposed a temporary ban on the permanent placement of mobile homes within the city, and Florida City indefinitely delayed a vote on a similar ordinance. In addition, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating mobile home construction and safety, and the U.S. Congress has convened subcommittee hearings to address the same matter.
Duany presented his plans last month to a committee of representatives from several Protestant relief groups; he also included them in a four-day design symposium in Florida City this past weekend. (Architects involved in the conference plan to unveil a sweeping master plan for Florida City at the end of the week.) "The people who know the most about the poor communities were really excited by the ideas," says Dabney "Bud" Park, executive officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. "We all have a lot of concern about the poorest people in the county and we want to do something about it. [Duany has] exactly what we were thinking about and what we needed."
Park says the interdenominational coalition may have up to $1.5 million available to pay for construction of several apartments. (By Duany's calculations, each no-frills unit would cost from $32,000 to $36,000 to build; low-end mobile homes, by comparison, range in cost from about $15,000 to $35,000.) "We're not sure that we can do this yet," says Park. "We need to look at the cost of land and what it will cost to build these things. And we're not sure that our denominations will support it."
If the churches decide to proceed with the plan, Park warns that his church, at least, has no intention of being a long-term landlord. Ideally, he says, the church would turn over the properties to community-development corporations or help residents form ownership groups that would eventually own the apartments. "With [Duany's plans] we may be able to get out of the committee rooms and get off the dime and see something happen," says Park, who is frustrated with the bureaucratic morass hampering We Will Rebuild and other relief groups. "It's the kind of thing that if the religious community takes the first step, sticks their necks out, and gets something done for the poorest community, the rest of the community may be aware of it and may want to do something to support it."
Adds Duany: "To dislodge a bureaucracy, you need a compelling idea. There's no idea more compelling at this moment than affordable housing that is wonderful to live in and has a chance of overcoming the social deficiencies of the past models.