Affordable Housing in Shipping Container Apartment Complexes
Big cities around the world have a problem. Their accommodation prices are too high for the people on lower incomes. From firemen to teachers, from cleaners to shopkeepers, those who give life to a city cannot afford to live there thanks to richer folk out-competing them for rents.
This is why affordable, decent housing is needed in city centres like New York, Sydney, London and Los Angeles. A solution may well be found in shipping container apartment complexes.
Affordable housing thanks to shipping containers
In the same way as Smartphones have got cheaper and more affordable, so there is a ‘tiny home movement’ where people divest most of their unnecessary belongings to live in a very small home.
This might amount to a 40ft shipping container that is subdivided into a shower room, living area, kitchenette and sleeping area. It’s not what everyone wants and should a couple produce children this becomes an impossible solution, at least unless the unit is extended. On expensive land that might not be possible.
Shipping container construction is cheap and can be done very quickly. Being modular, the units are cut, welded and fitted out off-site and then dropped into place on-site. This means they can be largely constructed in factory conditions with elements like the production line speeding things up even further. This impacts significantly on man-hours put into building an apartment complex or home, and cuts the cost of the homes down by a decent margin.
Once on site those homes can sit on fairly basic concrete pads and the huge foundations that one sees for high rises aren’t always necessary. This can make the construction movable should it be on land earmarked by a major developer for a high value development, or it can just impact on the final rental costs of the units in place.
In the next three sections we will look at three such container apartment complexes and show how it is possible to have affordable, decent living spaces for workers right in the heart of a city.
Washington DC – affordable housing in the US Capital
In August 2018 an ad appeared in Craigslist for potential renters to move into an apartment complex in the heart of the US Capital for as little as $1099 a month. That’s way below the market rates in the part of town that hasn’t the city’s reputation for gangland violence and drugs.
The ad specified potential residents would be living in a “Uniquely constructed 4 unit building [which] is truly one of a kind. Welcome to DC’s first shipping container residential building. Constructed using repurposed steel shipping containers, this brand new modern apartment is one of the most memorable multi-family buildings in all of DC. You can rent a bedroom for yourself or bring a group of friends!”
While the shipping container construction of the complex helped tackle the costs of the homes, it also has a big shared ‘restaurant style’ kitchen so there is a mix of private and communal living for those who take up a tenure there. Tenants can be private as they like – even living on pizzas and dining out – but can contribute to life in the building through the kitchen and communal space.
Given that even in the Houses of Congress there are a large number of people who do not earn big figure salaries (who often have long commutes as a result) this is a very cool move to include the full mix of incomes a city has, for the complex fabric of city life to exist.
Columbus, Ohio – the (once) biggest shipping container apartment complex
Ohio nonprofit Nothing into Something Real Estate (NISRE) started building two apartment complexes in the US Midwest city of Columbus, Ohio in 2017. At the time the complexes of 26 homes and 54 containers were going to be the biggest shipping container apartment complex in the USA.
Two buildings went up – one for people trying to get their lives back on track such as ex-convicts, people recovering from drug and mental health problems and so forth, as well as a building for those families who are on a low income yet need to live close to Downtown to tackle commute times and expenses.
During a project like this a number of variable factors come into play. In this case there were clashes between NISRE and the construction team leading to a breakdown in the contract and also a problem with the city building regulators who shut down construction for a long time to ensure that local building regulations were adhered to.
The Columbus Dispatch reported in April this year, ““The Cargominium project stopped construction because we terminated our former general contractor and developer for failure to perform,” said NISRE founder and CEO Michele Reynolds, who founded her faith-based nonprofit housing organisation in 2006.
Meanwhile the architects Three Squared stated, “The project was on hold for six weeks due to State inspections, by subsequently the State of Ohio is using our code compliance standards for commercial buildings for Cargo Architecture.”
Thanks to a Federal tax break to help regenerate the area in which the complex sits, work got underway again to finish the project earlier this year. It should be ready for its new tenants from Christmas time this year.
LA builds US biggest container apartment block
In January this year the Urbanize website reported that an 84 unit affordable housing complex is to be built in Los Angeles, another city where affordability is a problem.
Ubanize reported, “The Hope on Alvarado Street, located at 166 N. Alvarado Street, will consist of a five-story structure containing 84 studio and one-bedroom apartments, as well as space for on-site social services and a small parking garage. The apartments are to be priced for persons making 60 percent or less than the area median income, with rents set between $788 and $1,014 per month.”
While it cost US $27 million to build, the apartment block was slated to be built and finished in just six months from the ground being broken! This is one of the reasons that the rents can be so low thanks to the vastly reduced man hours put into putting it together.
The Aedis Real Estate Group, which is part of the organisation behind the apartment complex, reported “Hope on Alvarado, a four-story apartment complex with 84 studios and one-bedrooms, is the first of a series of Hope projects that uses shipping containers as the main building material.”
Aedis President Scott Baldridge thinks that Los Angeles has been spending too much money on ambulances, emergency care and temporary housing. “These are all inefficient ways to solve this problem,” he says.
Could container architecture resolve housing cost issues?
As shown throughout this article, the sheer cost savings involved in constructing housing complexes can reduce the amount of money the developer needs to claw back from their investment in leaseholds, freeholds and rents. That can mean decent housing can be put into urban centres where they might otherwise not due to costs incurred in constructions.
While these three examples show what can be done, others have failed thanks to costs involved spiralling during the construction process. As ever, a well planned project will often surmount those unseen costs – a key principle of all building construction.
Will we see any such apartment complexes here in Australia? That comes down to planning and ambition on the part of those behind such a project. Keep an eye on our Facebook page for news and updates.