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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.

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