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How these Alabama architecture students are improving lives with low-cost home designs

For decades, students and faculty from Auburn University’s Rural Studio have been working, studying and living in Hale County, Alabama, and using architecture to serve the greater good. There, more than two dozen different homes that cost only $20,000 have been designed, constructed and given to residents. John Yang reports as part of our ongoing series, Chasing the Dream.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, discussions about affordable housing often focus on big, expensive cities, like San Francisco and New York. But what about rural America, home to about one-fifth of the U.S. population?

    John Yang reports on a program improving housing in a remote town in Alabama.

    It's part of our ongoing series on poverty and opportunity, Chasing the Dream.

  • Ree Zinnerman:

    Welcome to my house.

  • John Yang:

    Ree Zinnerman was born in this tiny West Alabama town of Newbern, and, for her, it will always be home.

  • Ree Zinnerman:

    It's a peaceful place, and I just like sitting here watching it and listening to the quiet.

  • John Yang:

    Soon, for the first time, she will move into a real house of her own. For more than 40 years, she lived in a mobile home.

  • Ree Zinnerman:

    That's what I was living in.

  • John Yang:

    Zinnerman's house comes courtesy of architecture students in Auburn University's Rural Studio program.

  • Ree Zinnerman:

    Words can't describe it. I couldn't believe it. After all these years, something I have always wanted was a house. And I was going to be blessed with the house of my own.

  • John Yang:

    Since 1993, Rural Studio students and faculty have been working, studying and living in Hale County, Alabama. Some call it a lesson in social design, using architecture to serve the greater good.

    Rural Studio's director is Andrew Freear.

  • Andrew Freear:

    There's this sort of feeling that everybody deserves good design, and whether they're rich, poor, black, white, pink, or green.

  • John Yang:

    Zinnerman's house is part of the studio's 20K Project, launched in 2005, with the goal of producing residences that would cost $20,000 to build, 20K.

    More than two dozen different homes have been designed, constructed and given to residents. Most are one-bedroom, about 500 square feet. Each design is named for the recipient. There's Johnnie Mae's House, Buster's house, and next to Ree's House, Geraldine's House.

    That's Zinnerman's younger sister, Geraldine Braxton.

  • Geraldine Braxton:

    The day he gave me the keys to the door, I couldn't even open the door, I was shaking so. I was happy.

  • John Yang:

    Braxton has lived here for two years. The retired school cafeteria worker loves her kitchen

  • Geraldine Braxton:

    I like everything about it, the way it's set up. I like my island in the center of the kitchen.

  • John Yang:

    Braxton's new energy-efficient house puts less strain on her wallet. Her previous home was poorly insulated, it cost her hundreds of dollars a month to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

  • Geraldine Braxton:

    I was spending like about $350 on gas in the winter every month.

  • John Yang:

    Three hundred fifty dollars a month?

  • Geraldine Braxton:

    Every month for gas.

  • John Yang:

    While Rural Studios is helping improve the lives of local residents, the main focus is on training a new generation of architects whose social consciences are as strong as their aesthetics.

  • Andrew Freear:

    What we're trying to do is design a home that is easily built, and, again, easily maintained. You know, our goal is to offer it up at some scale down the road, but we're determined to do it quietly and slowly and carefully.

  • John Yang:

    The idea is to give students a hands-on experience working with an underserved community in the heart of the South's Black Belt. Hale County is one of the poorest in the state — 24 percent of all residents live below the poverty line, compared with about 13 percent nationwide.

    For African-Americans in the county, the rate is even higher, more than 35 percent. And in an area short on jobs, the population is dwindling, dropping 6 percent from 2010 to 2017.

    Since the students live full-time in Newbern, some 140 miles from Auburn's main campus, they're seen not as outsiders. They're seen as neighbors.

  • Ree Zinnerman:

    I think it makes a difference by them being part of the community, because they have really improved it.

  • John Yang:

    And they ask their neighbors to suggest who could use a new house.

  • Gwen Melton:

    And it was just sad for anybody to be living in those conditions in these days and times.

  • John Yang:

    Who better to ask than Gwen Melton, who delivers mail to 483 homes in the Newbern area every day?

    For 10 years, she's quietly suggested potential clients to Rural Studio.

    And how does it make you feel when you go deliver the mail to that new house, knowing what they had lived before?

  • Gwen Melton:

    Makes me feel great.

  • John Yang:

    The 20K Project began with lofty goals. Rural Studio associate director Rusty Smith oversees the project.

  • Rusty Smith:

    We thought we were going to work for a year or two or maybe three, and it would solve all the problems of housing affordability in the United States.

  • John Yang:

    It didn't take them long to realize the hurdles to doing it on a bigger scale.

  • Rusty Smith:

    We're in charge of the financing, and we're in this place where we live, and we have got student labor to do it and the faculty oversight.

    The challenges to scale, to kind of do this outside of our kind of operational footprint, are many.

  • John Yang:

    Still, they want the project to focus attention on the issues facing rural areas, not just in America, but around the world.

  • Andrew Freear:

    It's absolutely a Trojan horse for a whole bunch of issues about rural living that we're very interested in challenging and being a voice for.

  • John Yang:

    For instance, cell service in Newbern area is spotty. The town's new library, designed by the Rural Studio, is the only place high-speed Internet is available to the public.

  • Barbara Williams:

    It makes you feel real good to be able to say that we have a library.

  • John Yang:

    Librarian Barbara Williams says that when the nearby high school closed five years ago, the town lost a community hub.

  • Barbara Williams:

    What the library is trying to do is to try to meet some of the needs of the community that are being left, I guess left unmet with the closing of the high school.

  • John Yang:

    Across the street is Newbern's fire station. Built by the Rural Studio in 2004, it was the first new public building in the town in a century.

    Pat Braxton lost his job in 2013 when the factory where he worked the next town over went out of business. Now he's a volunteer firefighter and Newbern's handyman. Before, the nearest fire station was 15 minutes away.

  • Pat Braxton:

    By having this truck right here in Newbern, we saved a lot of houses. We saved a lot of people's lives.

  • John Yang:

    And saved Newbern homeowners a lot of money, reducing insurance premiums.

    Like all of Rural Studio's projects, style also has function. There are no fire hydrants in Newbern, so the fire trucks carry their own water, and have to be kept from freezing in the winter.

  • Andrew Freear:

    It's not just it looks funky and it look cool. It's very much about making sure that those fire trucks don't freeze and that that space is temperate throughout the year.

  • John Yang:

    Ree Zinnerman gave students free rein to design her house, except for one detail.

  • Ree Zinnerman:

    A red door. And my momma always loved red.

  • John Yang:

    For Zinnerman, the greatest relief is simply having a well-designed, well-built house to live in. For Rural Studio, it's about more than just solving a housing problem.

  • Rusty Smith:

    Solving problems sort of imagines the future as broken and it needs to be fixed. I don't think there's anything broken here. But there's some really significant purposes that need to be served.

  • John Yang:

    A lesson for students in helping an underserved community and helping the community learn how to better serve itself.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Newbern, Alabama.

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