Article by Sarah Tan for UptownMessenger.comThroughout the city of New Orleans, more than 5,000 irregularly-shaped empty lots of land have traditionally been seen as too tiny to be built upon, so they just sit. One architecture firm and developer team, however, have been looking to make use of these lots by turning them into small, but affordable housing stock.
“The lot on St. Thomas ‘wasn’t worthy of a house’ is what the neighbors said,” architect Jonathan Tate said.
Tate’s firm and developer Charles Rutledge began noticing a preponderance of these irregular lots like the one on St. Thomas Street in the Irish Channel, a neighborhood that over the past few years has skyrocketed in real estate value. In total, there are about 20 to 30 irregularly sized lots that measure less than 900 square feet. They thought that if they could use the land to build smaller houses, they could both utilize the empty space, and also potentially open up an increasingly expensive neighborhood to first-time homebuyers.
“The Irish Channel is particularly interesting because the value is going way up, and it’s pushing people out,” Rutledge said. “We want to see how to make housing more affordable without cheap architecture.”
The solution has been, for the most part, to buy a smaller plot of land and to build a smaller house, which will have lower construction costs. Currently, the team is working on their first “starter home,” a house on an 880-square-foot lot in the 3100 block St. Thomas Street in the Irish Channel. The house looms tall and thin on a sliver of land in the backyard of a creole cottage and a warehouse.
“If we’re working with odd lots, we can be inventive with how we use space and advantage all parts of the lot,” Tate said. “Stylistically, its contemporary, but there’s enough familiarity to them.”
Real-estate agent Tracey Moore, who will put the house on the market in August, has said that she thought the team was filling a particular niche in the real estate market that had yet to be addressed.
“Smaller lots are hard to deal with, but because they’re small, they’re still somewhat affordable,” Moore said. “Most of the time, these lots are just sitting there with grass growing or people are putting trash on them.”
She added that for someone trying to break into the housing market in a trendier neighborhood such as the Channel or the Bywater, smaller lots were the only things left. Although the thought of developing irregularly-sized lots isn’t necessarily new, developers often overlook them because they may not turn as much of a profit, Moore said. Tate and Rutledge acknowledge this fact, and say that their first house on St. Thomas may need to sell for more in order for them to make up for potentially losing money on the sale of future starter homes in the area.
They bought the 16-by-55-foot lot on St. Thomas for $22,000. By comparison, a regular-sized lot in the area recently sold for $285,000, and that’s not including the price of building a house on the lot. Houses in the area have sold for up to $400 per square foot. The team is hoping to sell their starter homes for around $200 a square foot.
“We’re trying to provide an alternative option for someone with a price point that doesn’t exist in this part of the city,” Tate added.
For people looking to build home equity and buy their first house, Tate and Rutledge hope that their starter home will provide another option in another neighborhood that they may not otherwise have considered.
“As a neighborhood improves, it gets more economically homogenous, and existing residents are forced to move out,” Rutledge said. “But part of what makes these neighborhoods attractive is their proximity to the city center, and why shouldn’t more people of economic diversity get to enjoy that?”
Moore added however, that affordable is a relative term.
“This is not going to be cheap…but there are only four houses Uptown that are selling for under 300 per square foot,” she said, adding that the new starter home will be a fifth, and an option that is in a highly sought after neighborhood. The other affordable Uptown houses she mentioned are in neighborhoods such as Hollygrove or Gert Town.
The house on St. Thomas is planned to be finished with construction and on the market by August. The team is also looking at purchasing small lots in Central City, the Bywater and the Marigny for their next starter home site.
Sarah Tan is a freelancer reporter based in Mid-City.