For the past 13 years, architecture students at Auburn University's Rural Studio have been quietly designing, constructing, and gifting affordable houses to members of Alabama's Hale County community. Known as the 20K Initiative, this research effort "aspires to enable broader access to titled homeownership in underserved rural communities," according to an Auburn University press release. And as of yesterday, national mortgage company Fannie Mae will collaborate with the design studio to help sustain research and construction efforts in the community.
“Auburn’s program aims to find solutions in Alabama that can be applied nationwide," said Fannie Mae vice president Michael Hernandez in the press release. "The support of their research effort goes to the heart of our affordable housing mission and complements our Duty to Serve initiative, especially when it comes to addressing the shortage of affordable housing in rural America.”
Launched in 1993, Rural Studio is an off-campus design/build program at Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction providing students hands-on experience in West Alabama's Black Belt region, an area full of underserved communities facing unemployment, poverty, and limited opportunities. In 2005, Rural Studio created the 20K Initiative with the initial goal of designing a "market-rate model home that could be built by a contractor for $20,000 ($12,000 for materials and $8,000 for labor and proﬁt)," according to the Rural Studio website.
While the predictability of labor and installation costs has challenged this objective, students from the studio have designed more than 24 affordable single-family houses—often one-bedroom and approximately 500 square feet—for residents of Hale County since the program's inception. (To determine which community members most deserve such a gift, program leaders have relied on local mail carrier Gwen Melton for her recommendations, according to a PBS News Hour feature.)
Going forward, the program will be supported by Fannie Mae and a Presidential Awards for Interdisciplinary Research (PAIR) grant provided by Auburn University.
"The 20K Initiative through Rural Studio represents Auburn’s best as a land grant institution,” said Auburn University president Steven Leath in the release. "By integrating teaching, research, and service, the 20K Initiative improves lives in Alabama and around the country, brings quality, sustainable homeownership to citizens and builds stronger communities."