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Container houses steel Pettaway's housing boomlet 

A new breed of recycled houses, or "steel box residences," help community renovation.

Valarie Abrams' first home of her own is going to be a steel box, maybe the first steel box residence in Little Rock, maybe the first green steel box in the U.S.A.

Sixty percent of the home, coming from Smart Structures of Little Rock, will be made of recycled materials — including the home itself, four 8-by-32 foot shipping containers ("one-trippers" emptied of cargo at American docks) that will be assembled into a nearly 1,300-square-foot home. The walls and ceilings will be insulated so well that Abrams' utility costs should be minimal; the floors will be bamboo; the appliances energy-efficient. There will be a rain barrel in front and back to catch runoff from the flat roof. The house will be LEED-certified, the builder's green gold medal.

Abrams' house will go up at Twenty-first and Commerce and a second container home will be built on an adjacent lot. North of Abrams' home, at 1805 Commerce, a cantilevered house — a two-story of rectangular units set at right angles designed by fourth and fifth year students at the University of Arkansas's Fay Jones School of Architecture — is already under construction in Fayetteville and should be ready for assembly in Little Rock in a couple of months. It will be the second UA-designed prefabricated house for the Pettaway neighborhood east of Main Street, which one day may be defined by its diversity of architecture, people and a sense of cooperative community.

Nearly 20 years ago, what distinguished Twenty-first Street was not its architecture but the gang that took its name from it — the Twenty-first Street Posse. The neighborhood, its original residents dying out, was riddled with empty lots and abandoned houses and prostitutes; preschoolers once lined up at a fence of the now-defunct Montessori Cooperative School at Twenty-first and Main to watch a prostitute bust.

Longtime residents like Bertha Vault, who lived at 519 E. 21st St., in the home built by the man the neighborhood is named for, Rev. Charles D. Pettaway, and Priscilla Boyle, who still lives in the neighborhood, were instrumental in turning things around, said Maggie Hawkins, who now works as facilitator at the Alert Center on Twenty-first. Hawkins and Boyle served on the first board of the Downtown Little Rock Community Development Corp., which, with a little money and a lot of persistence, has been building new, affordable housing in the neighborhood.

The DLRCDC, in its East of Main project, has navigated rough economic waters and complex financing in its effort to rebuild the Pettaway neighborhood "one house at a time," as its saying goes. The CDC's first project, in 1995, was to clear out the drug dealers and ladies of the night from apartments on Main, which were rehabilitated and renamed the Mahlon Martin Apartments. Two years later the CDC was the non-profit sponsor for the Kramer School Lofts. It then began to focus on the area east of Main and south of I-630, selling six homes in 2001. But that spurt of activity was followed by a lull not broken until last year, when the DLRCDC built three new homes and renovated two with new private partners. The nonprofit expects this year to put families in seven more new or renovated houses this year.

The housing stock in Pettaway is modest, though there are many grand older homes to be found on its fringes. The January 1999 tornado that leveled a Harvest Food grocery store on Main Street took out many houses; others have declined through neglect and absentee ownership.

Scott Grummer, executive director of the CDC and someone who gets a lot of praise, if not huge financial remuneration, for his leadership, says the CDC's burst of activity in 2010 and this year was ignited by an improving economy, good working relations with Centennial Bank, the ability to work with the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of American (NACA), which has a less than 1 percent foreclosure rate, and private partnerships.

Downtown Little Rock CDC Board President Stacy Williams, addressing the group's first Community Luncheon a couple of Saturdays ago, drew attention to the fact that he had on a red sweater and Judge Marion Humphries, whom he'd just introduced, was wearing blue. That morning, getting dressed, Williams said, "I thought about the neighborhood" and the color he'd chosen to wear, getting a laugh from the audience who knew exactly what he was talking about. "These days it's about Kenneth Cole and Old Navy."

He was referring, of course, to the Crips and the Bloods, gangbangers whose 1990s rivalry gave downtown Little Rock a reputation as being seamy and dangerous.

Grummer says the goal of the LRCDC is to "reweave the fabric of the neighborhood," and on that loom are the wood-frame homes of the 19th century and the steel and insulated block homes of the 21st. Hawkins said that's what Pettaway Park is about: cooperative diversity.

When Grummer first told Hawkins about the idea for the U of A's "Design/Build" program to construct a house in Fayetteville and move it to the Pettaway neighborhood, "I thought, I don't want to see that," Hawkins told the lunch crowd. But her opinion changed, she said, thanks to Grummer and the "youth, vigor, ideas and imagination" of the U of A architecture students who last year helped place a house of their own design and construction at 1519 S. Commerce St.

The low-slung one-story, which wouldn't look out of place on "The Jetsons," features double-paned glass walls, cedar slats forming a rain screen, soy-based insulation and high-efficiency appliances.

The students prefabricated the 1,200-square-foot house in four modules in a warehouse in Fayetteville (one design parameter was that the modules had to be able to easily travel through the Bobby Hopper tunnel on Interstate 540) and then moved the parts to Little Rock to finish out. Gov. Mike Beebe, Mayor Mark Stodola and other dignitaries were on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in May at the house, the home of Stephanie and Quincy Scott. Cost to the Scotts: $109,500.

Carrie Young, former president of the Pettaway Neighborhood Association, praised Grummer for the CDC's outreach about the "Design/Build" project, which included a neighborhood meeting to discuss the design and answer questions. Grummer "works at making sure there's a sense of team work," said Young, who owns one of the first houses built by the CDC, at 2017 Cumberland in 2001. "To actually set up a meeting, invite all of the neighborhood ... let them see displays, mini-designs ... he is that kind of leader. He wants to make sure the community he's involved with is actually excited about" the CDC's moves, she said.

She gave much credit for Pettaway's revival to the residents, who she said are "staying on top" of things and calling in suspicious activity "day or night." She said it appeared to her that landlords were also doing better by their renters with fixes and updates.

The immediate area around the Scotts' UA house at 15th and Commerce will encapsulate the architectural variety the neighborhood could come to be known for. Next door to the UA-prefab is a home constructed of energy-efficient Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF) built last year by the CDC in a traditional style. (The ICF house looks just like any house except in its interior door jambs, which reveal the thickness of the walls, Grummer said.) Going up across the street is a modernized 20-by-80-foot shotgun designed by downtown developer-architect collaborators Paul Page Dwellings/GUS.

As unique as the architecture is the financing that is making it possible for Abrams, 51, who is raising three children on her salary as an administrative assistant, and Juanita White, 44, who works for Goodwill Industries and is going to school at night, to buy their first homes. Through the CDC, they are able to get $20,000 HOME loans, federal housing money that the city grants, and NACA grants to help them buy down the interest in their mortgages. For the Paul Page-designed house, White will pay $626 a month for her $135,000 house, an interest rate of only .875 percent. Abrams, an administrative assistant raising three children, will pay $120,000 for her history-making home; her mortgage rate will be only .25 percent. After White and Abrams stay in their homes for 10 years and make all payments, their HOME loans are forgivable.

Abrams and White credit their discovery of the DLRCDC, which matched them with houses they could afford, to "divine intervention," as Abrams put it.

Shown the design for the house designed by Paul Page Dwellings, which has privately developed several other modern homes in the neighborhood, for the CDC's lot at 1518 Commerce, White thought, "Gosh, that looks funny ... like a shotgun house way back in the day." But, she added, "I looked at it, prayed over it [and decided] this house was meant for me."

Abrams said when Grummer showed her the plans for the shipping container home he warned her, "I don't know if you're going to like this."

"I was like, 'OK'," she said, grinning, "especially when he told me I might never have a light bill over $40."

It was the look of the UA-designed house that inspired Kwadjo Boaitey and his wife, Karama Neal, to consider the Pettaway.

Boaitey, who works with the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission and who recently moved to Little Rock with Neal, an Arkansas native, from Atlanta, said the couple was unsure about the house the CDC showed them: Its first rehabbed offering, a two-story 19th-century home at 613 E. 16th St. that the non-profit had bought for $8,000 and put around $160,000 into fixing up. It didn't have the modern appeal that the UA house did, and at 1,700 square feet, it seemed a little small to Boiatey and Neal, who have a 4-year-old daughter, Ayoka. But when he walked in the house, Boaitey said, "it was like, 'Wow!' " The high ceilings, the gleaming new kitchen, the finished-out attic, and their desire to be part of the neighborhood convinced them.

Unlike Abrams, White and the Scotts, Boaitey and Neal got a conventional loan for the home, the first the DLRCDC's sold at a market rate. Though the CDC's primary aim is to provide affordable housing, its sale of homes at a market rate allows it to make a small profit that it can then invest in the affordable homes, which the CDC sometimes builds at a loss. The Boaitey-Neal family paid $185,000 for their new house, where Ayoka (her name means "bringer of joy" in Yoruba) delights in her fairy-tale gabled bedroom.

The block isn't fairy-tale perfect. The house across the street sits empty, damaged by a fire. But a lot east of the house is another CDC restoration, a Craftsman-style one-story that will also be sold at market rate. A lot in between has been cleared and will also be developed by the CDC. And the street leads to the entrance of Rockefeller Elementary and Early Childhood Magnet School, one of the neighborhood's great assets.

"We've already met all our neighbors," Boiatey said. Did he worry about the safety of the area before moving in? "I didn't really," he said, but added, laughing, "I've certainly lived in much more hard core spots."

Instead, Boiatey feels "a little current" of life in Pettaway.

Chris Ellis, minister of mission and outreach for Second Baptist Church downtown, and his wife, Elizabeth, were the first of several couples from the church to move to the neighborhood. They worked with the CDC to locate a lot and were able to design their affordable home, a one-story, traditional home at 1814 S. Rock St. Because of Pettaway's identification as a low-income census tract, the Ellises were able to get a Bank of America loan that didn't require mortgage insurance.

"I wanted to live where I worked," Ellis, a Florida native, said. "I love diversity, people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. I wanted to be part of something new."

The Ellises, now parents of two young boys, Silas and Micah, took their future family into account when they put bare concrete floors in the 1,440-square-foot house. Their kitchen has IKEA fixtures; a porch and porch swing front the street. Since they moved in 2005, a friend from the church moved next door (in a private transaction, not through the CDC).

"I didn't know what a sense of community I would find down here," Ellis, who now sits on the CDC board, said. Pettaway is a place people have moved intentionally, and their commitment to the area is "palpable," he said. "We love walking to the Green Corner Store," an "eco lifestyle" store carrying clothing and gifts at 15th and Main, Ellis said. By summer, he hopes, he, his wife and the boys will be eating at the Root Cafe at the southwest corner of that same intersection, in an erstwhile drive-in dairy bar. Two blocks up, at 1701 Main St., a sizable new USA Drug opens Thursday, March 17.

"Things are moving so quickly now," Ellis said.

At present, the DLRDC owns enough land in the Pettaway area to build 15 more single family units. Much of the nonprofit's land was obtained from the state land commissioner's office; the CDC's cost is in clearing up liens. All donated land is used for affordable housing development, and the CDC has a deadline to meet on developing such properties. Other properties, such as two historic houses in the 1600 block of Scott Street, directly behind the new USA Drug, were bought from a landowner who'd been in environmental court for failure to keep the properties up; the CDC spent $20,000 on each home, both of which are being renovated and one of which is in the process of being sold at a market rate.

Developing the neighborhood is complex enough, what with the need to clear up liens, work with clients who qualify for affordable homes and work with the lenders. A recent spate of vandalism — the theft of copper wiring from one house under renovation and a destroyed condenser unit at another last week — has presented other challenges to the tightly-budgeted non-profit.

As their development increases, the CDC has begun to think outside the steel box, considering its business plan. It's analyzing the big-picture dynamic its construction brings to the Pettaway housing market, "and its impact on other developments in the area," Grummer said. "Since the subsidies are typically not picked up by appraisers and realtors looking for comparable sales, it can lead to inaccurate comps, so making sure that these professionals are doing their due diligence is an important part of what we do." While its mantra will still be building Pettaway "one house at a time," the nonprofit is also open to finding new ways to lift the neighborhood, including partnering with the South Main Street (SoMa) project to strengthen economic development.

The CDC hopes to break ground on the shipping-container home in May, which won't come a day too soon for Abrams, who has been waiting for almost a year for details to be worked out with banks and the container company. The complexity of financing meant she missed out on last year's $8,000 tax credit for new homebuyers. "But when you look at all the benefits I will receive," Abrams said, "all I can say is 'Thank you, Jesus.' "

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