Urban Build program tackles New Orleans housing crisis

Marcus Pacenza, Staff Writer

Students in the Urban Build program work to construct residences in New Orleans. (Courtesy of Esther Zulem)

A rise in crime, unemployment and rent prices has had a significant impact on the city of New Orleans and Tulane University’s campus. According to local housing advocates, these problems can be attributed to one primary cause: a lack of affordable housing. 

“Housing is at the root of a myriad of problems our city is currently facing,” HousingNOLA, a local coalition of nonprofits and residents aimed at addressing housing issues, said in a 2022 report. After giving New Orleans a failing grade on their Housing Report Card for the third year in a row, HousingNOLA said that the housing crisis is “strangling New Orleans, slowly but surely.”

As a community stakeholder impacted by this crisis, Tulane has pioneered various programs contributing to solutions. One such program is the Tulane School of Architecture’s “Urban Build” program, where students design and build affordable housing units on lots donated to the program by local nonprofits, who then sell these homes at an affordable price to the community.

The program has focused on the Central City neighborhood and has built 16 of its 18 units there. 

“Central City is perfect,” Urban Build Director Byron Mouton said. “[It] allows us to address this odd issue of the New Orleans fabric, where there’s prosperity and struggle side by side.”

Central City is only a few miles from Tulane’s campus, yet far less well-off than Uptown and the Garden District — the two neighborhoods it borders. 

Mouton said the Urban Build program has helped the neighborhood. 

“We’re helping to revitalize a very rich urban fabric,” he said. “The area is rich with both physical qualities and cultural qualities.” 

The number of units Urban Build produces is small and cannot fix the city’s housing issues on its own, but Mouton said the program has far reaching impacts. 

One house can accommodate 10 to 15 students a year. “And then each year, some of those students graduate, and quite a number of them have stayed in New Orleans,” Mouton said. Of those who stay, many have started their own firms aimed at local residential housing. 

Housing projects like Urban Build were common following Hurricane Katrina, but Mouton said that many people “wanted to come pursue a project, get their picture taken, … and then leave.” In contrast, Mouton said Urban Build won the respect of the neighborhood once they proved they were sticking around.

Urban Build is open to non-architecture students helping in the program, but Mouton said that this is difficult for most students to do because of the time commitment it requires. However, he argues that there are “many opportunities out there with an impact” that are easier for students to participate in. 

Other groups like Habitat for Humanity or Tulane Architecture’s Small Center for Collaborative design also work with residential housing issues in New Orleans. 

“The common Tulane students comes from a background of exposure and privilege that’s not always available to members of this community, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that,” Mouton said. “We have been fortunate and there’s ways for us to share our good fortune.”

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