The Avenues neighborhood on Big Pine Key was one of the cheapest places to buy or rent in the Keys for a reason: it has a lot of older ground-level or mobile homes.
When Hurricane Irma crossed the Lower Keys as a Category 4 last September, the Avenues was clobbered.
There’s a lot of federal money coming to the Keys to help out, but it won’t get there for awhile. But there's already at least four new homes going up in the Avenues. They’re being built by the Florida Keys Community Land Trust, a new nonprofit group that has a million dollars in seed money.
Marianne Cusato is the architect who designed them. Her firm specializes in emergency and workforce housing after disasters.
She said she got into that field in 2005.
“I was invited by Andres Duany, he’s an architect and planner in Miami, right after Katrina to design something called the Katrina cottage," she said. "And it was the alternative to the FEMA trailer. At the time, there were still people living in FEMA trailers from Andrew, which hit in 1992, when Katrina hit in 2005.”
While trailers appear to be an affordable, quick solution after hurricanes, they wind up costing money, she said.
“You have the initial cost. Then you have the cost to maintain it because it’s not meant to really be lived in and also then the cost to throw it out because you can’t use it afterwards. There’s nothing left. It goes to a landfill,” she said.
The goal of the Katrina cottages, and now the Keys cottages, is to avoid that waste. It's “a long-term solution to this immediate need,” she said.
The homes are intended for people who live and work in the Keys and for now, will be affordable rentals, owned and managed by the land trust. The land trust bought the properties, which had homes destroyed by Irma, then sold the land to Monroe County.
The people who live there will be “the servers ... teachers, nurses, sheriffs. It’s people that work in the Keys and make the economy possible,” Cusato said. “The economy of the Keys is dependent on workers and the workers can’t afford to live here.”
The houses now under construction are 760 square feet with two bedrooms and one bath.
“We’re raised up above FEMA flood heights and it helps you catch some breezes and keep things naturally cool. We have windows on multiple walls for cross ventilation and good light. And it’s designed to be here for the long run,” Cusato said.
It’s a simple design — a rectangle with a kitchen/dining living room in the front, the bathroom and secondary bedroom along a hallway in the middle and the master bedroom across the back of the house.
The design, Cusato said, “looks to the homes of the Keys.” She said the homes she designs are “a variation on a theme,” meant to fit in where they’re built.
“The Katrina cottage, when you look at it, you say this building belongs in New Orleans,” she said. “When you look at this, we want people to say this building belongs here in the Keys.”
Cusato said her goal is that no one who sees or lives in the cottage realizes she was there.
“Success is when somebody moves into it and just loves living there,” she said. “They don’t necessarily know why, but they know they love living there.”