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When an EF-2 tornado struck Selma, Alabama, in January 2023, it brought terrible destruction to the city, taking broad swaths of trees and homes and endangering hundreds of historic buildings.  

The storm came at a terrible time for the city, which was already facing a housing crisis. Prior to the tornado, the City of Selma began convening partners to work toward economic redevelopment through its “Safe Livable Neighborhoods” initiative. The lack of housing and its side effects were identified as a key challenge.

The City of Selma is actively working to attract more jobs and industry to the area and, in turn, to attract more residents. Selma has great opportunities for growth from eco-tourism and heritage tourism, including exciting new investments for riverfront recreation, but there is a great need for housing for workers and displaced families who could bring these opportunities to fruition. 

Auburn University’s Rural Studio Front Porch Initiative has partnered with the City of Selma Planning and Development Department, Selma Housing Authority, Black Belt Community Foundation, Auburn University Outreach and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) to develop sustainable, affordable and high-performance housing within the city. A recently awarded $1 million grant will support the work, with funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and matching funds from Regions Bank, Wells Fargo, Auburn University’s Office of the Provost, University Outreach, ACES and the College of Architecture, Design and Construction 

“This grant is an important starting point to create a network of supporters who are invested in long-term planning for the City of Selma,” said Auburn President Christopher B. Roberts. “This collaboration across Auburn’s campus and with local, state and national partners will help address the immediate crisis caused by significant storm damage, as well as more persistent challenges in the city.” 

The team will work together to gather community input, develop a strategic plan, design and implement a demonstration project and provide community support and education.   

“Bringing together partners from across the state and region to work with the city in addressing the housing shortage will help position Selma for a strong future and respond to growth opportunities,” City of Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr, said.

The Front Porch Initiative was established as an extension of Rural Studio’s place-based housing research focused on the development of affordable, high-performance homes. The program works with community partners across the Southeast to adapt designs to local needs and individual clients, sharing lessons learned from 30 years of designing and building homes in rural communities.

Since 2017, Fannie Mae has supported the development and expansion of the Front Porch Initiative, backing research and development that addresses the need for small, affordable, energy-efficient and resilient homes to rural, low-wealth, vulnerable and disaster-affected communities. The Front Porch Initiative now has 15 partners across seven states.  

“We are excited to work in partnership with Selma to address critical housing needs,” said Mackenzie Stagg, project lead and Front Porch Initiative research faculty. “We believe that increasing equitable access to high-performance homes is key to community resilience. We strive to provide resources and increase capacity to underserved and overburdened communities throughout the Southeast, but having the opportunity to work in our home state and in important communities such as Selma is an honor.”   

University Outreach will work with the team on community engagement throughout the project, seeking community input, communicating with stakeholders about project progress and developing topics for community workshops. ACES will be essential to long-term engagement. Dallas County Extension representatives will be engaged throughout the project, and Extension faculty will help to lead workshops for the community on finance and homeownership issues.  

“The impact of this project will be far-reaching, not only for Selma but as the catalyst for supporting other communities who may face similar challenges in the future,” said Hollie Cost, assistant vice president for University Outreach and Public Service. “We are honored to work with such a dynamic network of partners.”

Danielle Wooten, the City of Selma’s planning and development director, agrees.

“The Front Porch Initiative advances our shared goals of alleviating housing disparities by focusing on affordability, accessibility and recovery, but also celebrates the importance of partnerships to small rural communities impacted by disaster and disadvantage.”

If you are interested in learning more about the work in Selma or getting involved, contact Mackenzie Stagg.