MultiFamily Executive – Louisiana isn’t a stranger to natural disasters. In 2021 alone, the state was battered by the winds and storm surge of Category 4 Hurricane Ida, which made landfall on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; flooding; thunderstorms; tornadoes; and even freezing temperatures and ice.
The decades of devastation have been a call to action for building and rebuilding housing in a resilient manner to weather whatever catastrophe might hit next.
New Orleans-based HRI Communities is heeding that call, transforming a long-blighted site in Lafayette, Louisiana, into much-needed affordable and resilient housing as well as becoming a model for developments in areas prone to natural disasters.
“I joined HRI a little over 15 years ago, one year after Hurricane Katrina. We were still in recovery mode, and a lot of our apartments needed resources to put them back online. It was the most terrible time for this region, but a lot of folks started thinking about how to rebuild smarter at that time,” says president Josh Collen. “Then came Rita, Gustav, Ike, and the 2016 floods that hit 51 different parishes, which were in essence a high-water mark moment for Louisiana.”
After the floods, Louisiana Housing Corp. (LHC) came out with the Piggyback Resilient Mixed-Income (PRIME) program, in partnership with the Louisiana Office of Community Development (OCD), to develop resilient and sustainable multifamily properties for low- and moderate-income renters in areas impacted by the rising water in 2016.
HRI Communities’ multi-phase Bottle Art Lofts is comprised of the adaptive-reuse of a historic Coca-Cola bottling facility and an associated warehouse as well as a newly constructed multifamily building, guided by the PRIME program, on the former site of the LessPay Motel.
“I think it’s become a model for us to incorporate into our plans and specifications in general and certainly how the state is looking to see new multifamily apartments built,” Collen says.
The first phase with 40 affordable units in the rehabbed buildings welcomed residents in June 2021. It also features community spaces, including a computer center, a fitness studio, a shared art studio, a picnic area, garden space, and secured parking.
Residents will begin moving into the second phase, a new four-story resilient building with 65 mixed-income apartments, this month. The planning, design, and construction of this phase was based on an analysis of hazard exposure and advanced planning aimed at mitigating potential impact from future natural disasters and reflects best practices from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Louisiana State University’s AgCenter, and OCD.
While adhering to the components of the PRIME program, the second phase also received one of the first FORTIFIED Multifamily Gold designations issued by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. Based on decades of research, FORTIFIED is a voluntary construction and re-roofing standard shown in lab tests and real-world events to strengthen properties against severe weather. It launched its multifamily designation in January.
“With millions of Americans living in multifamily housing, our nation can’t meaningfully reduce the impact of natural disasters without building stronger multifamily communities,” says Fred Malik, managing director of FORTIFIED. “Much of the devastating loss caused by severe weather is avoidable simply by investing in resilient construction.”
To receive the Gold designation, the second phase had to include a stronger roofing system, properly secured rooftop equipment, impact windows, impact-rated wall systems, an engineered continued load path, as well as other requirements.
“Severe weather disrupts lives, displaces families, and often causes financial loss from which families are never able to recover. When storms strike, those with low to moderate incomes who can least afford to recover from devastating damage are often disproportionately impacted,” says Malik. “By making an investment in strengthening Bottle Art Lofts against severe weather, HRI Communities is minimizing the community’s risk of damage from storms, and that will help keep residents in their homes and close to their schools and jobs.”
According to Collen, the building, which is outside of the 500-year floodplain, also includes floodproofing materials for the first floor with sealed concrete floors, raised electrical and mechanical systems, Hardie water-resistant wainscoting with sheet rock above the 3.5-foot line, and stormwater management practices.
“It’s not all about our property, but also about helping the city system be able to handle a severe storm,” he says. “We’re doing things like permeable paving and a large cistern that connects to our gutters and using that to water landscaping and slow down the amount of water from our roof going into the city system, as well as oversized stormwater retention on the site.”
Collen adds that resiliency also involves sustainability. The second phase is Enterprise Green Communities certified, featuring improved insulation and a high-energy, high-SEER HVAC.
The building also has a natural gas generator, which is connected not only to life safety systems, but also to power the elevator and all of the refrigerators in the building in case of outages. “Every storm hits you in different ways. You can’t predict how it’s going to hit, and being without power for a couple of weeks can be a pretty nasty situation,” says Collen.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards spoke during the celebration for the completion of the development, telling the audience that as storms become more frequent and more intense, it’s critical to create affordable housing that can provide a safe home for the most vulnerable residents. “If we’re going to lead the country in disaster impacts, we’d better lead the country in how we prepare for and adapt to disasters,” he said. “This development is a big step in that direction, demonstrating new techniques that can make all our housing more resilient in the future.”
Bottle Art Lofts also is proving to be a model for neighborhood revitalization. The development is starting to reinvigorate the neighborhood, which had once been a community hub before years of disinvestment.
The Coca-Cola facility, which was built in 1948 as one of the brand’s first bottling plants in the state, was relocated in the 1970s, and most of the adjacent properties became underutilized. The LessPay Motel also was considered an eyesore and a hub for criminal activity.
“Part of our approach to neighborhood reinvestment is to capitalize on the strengths of the neighborhood and the broader community,” says Collen. “Regionally, Acadiana has an extremely unique culture. That Cajun culture produces amazing music, art, and food. For people who grew up here, it’s just part of their souls.”
In partnership with Acadiana Center for the Arts, the development will feature community-oriented art exhibits in its MoreArt Gallery. It also provides a leasing preference for artists, studio space, and space for art workshops and after-school programming.
“We’ve always used artist housing as a way to create projects that stabilize a neighborhood with long-term affordability for artists,” he adds. “It’s an anti-gentrification tool as well, in that when an artist makes a neighborhood cool they don’t get priced out, they get to stay there long term due to the affordable housing restrictions. This infusion of creative talent and capitalizing on the creative culture is adding vibrancy to that neighborhood.”
The creation of housing for low- and moderate-income households also is needed in the community.
“Similar to the rest of the state of Louisiana and the nation, we have an affordable housing crisis going on here in Lafayette,” Collen says. “It’s one that hasn’t gotten its fair share of resources over the last decade. Creating affordable housing and doing it in a way that addresses the community’s broader needs is huge.”
In the first phase, 28 units serve residents earning 60% of the area median income (AMI), 10 are for those earning at or less than 50% of the AMI, and two are deeply affordable permanent supportive housing (PSH). The second phase utilizes the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program’s income-averaging option, with 13 units at 80% of the AMI, 31 units at 60% of the AMI, 13 units at 50% of the AMI, six PSH units, and two deeply affordable units below 30% of the AMI.
The total development cost for both phases was approximately $32 million. Iberia Civic Impact Partners, now known as First Horizon, was the LIHTC and federal historic tax credit investor on both phases, and Enhanced Capital was the state historic tax credit purchaser. JPMorgan Chase was the tax-exempt bond construction lender on both phases and the permanent lender on the first phase, and Berkadia Commercial Mortgage was the servicer of a Freddie Mac tax-exempt loan on the second phase. The development received awards from OCD and LHC for Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funding. LHC allocated the LIHTCs and served as the bond issuer. Lafayette Consolidated Government and Acadiana Planning Commission also provided loans.
Other partners include the design-build team of New Orleans-based Impetus, HRI affiliate HCI Architecture, and property manager HRI Management.