Thinking Inside of the Box

David J. Jefferson

In my last column, (from the 4/8/10 issue) I discussed a recent interfaith meeting of local religious and community leaders who convened to dialogue about homelessness as a solvable problem. The idea of Housing First featured prominently in the forum, which is an initiative that has been outlined previously in this publication (see Karash, “Housing Lost, Housing Regained, Housing Kept” from the 2/25/10 issue). For the uninitiated reader, Housing First—a component of the federal HEARTH Act passed in 2009—means that for individuals experiencing homelessness, solutions should involve permanent housing first, with services such as mental health care or food stamps prioritized subsequently.

Housing First will ramify itself nationwide over the next several years, positioning the initiative as the dominant orientation of the shelter and service provision system. Yet many questions remain concerning how exactly permanent housing will be created for the thousands of people across America without it. Some homeless advocates have expressed concerns that many permanent housing units will likely be owned and managed by the extant shelter system. To opponents of Housing First, such a shift might indicate that the situation of the homeless will go from being one of unstable housing but strong community in a system within which they feel disempowered, to a situation of stable housing amid social isolation within the same system.

But beyond the more philosophical uncertainties surrounding the implementation of Housing First, there exist many practical questions related to the enactment of the initiative. Who will build and own new permanent housing units? (The state? Public charities? Private developers?) Where will they be located? (In safe areas of cities? Close to public transportation?) How much will the units cost, both to construct and then to rent to formerly homeless tenants? Finally, who will foot the bill? (Taxpayers? Private developers?) In order to answer these queries efficiently and effectively, solutions will need to represent collaborations between multiple sectors of society.

The question of how to create affordable and comfortable housing for homeless and low-income individuals and families has recently been explored in creative yet pragmatic ideas in some of the world’s urban centers. For example, a recent proposal in Vancouver involves refurbishing intermodal shipping containers—the 40-foot steel boxes used for transport on cargo ships and flatbed trucks—into housing for that city’s homeless population. According to Mark Levinson, author of a book on the subject, these containers have been touted as oiling the cogs of globalization, with 18 million of them carting low-cost consumer goods from countries like China to stores like Wal-Mart. Ironically, the same boxes could now represent an opportunity for new homes for individuals perhaps rendered poor by the failings of the global economy.

Three Canadian firms have submitted proposals to build container-based housing in Vancouver since the City Council began to invite ideas last summer. One company offered to build a 43-suite complex at no taxpayer cost, while another would lease dormitory-style rooms for $350 per month, according to Monte Paulsen’s April 14th article in British Columbia-based publication The Tyee. Unfortunately, the process of building container-based housing for the homeless in Vancouver is currently stalled in the regional legislature. Yet leaders of the firms that submitted the proposals remain optimistic, emphasizing their belief in such projects to produce broad community benefit, according to the Paulsen article.

The creation of low-cost housing for low-income people through novel means such as recycling steel shipping containers could represent just the sort of solution that state legislators will need to find in order to implement Housing First across cities in the United States. The advantage of employing creative technical innovation to solve social ills is manifold—and the reuse of containers for housing is environmentally friendly for various reasons. Most obviously, refurbishing the steel boxes that would be otherwise useless once taken out of circulation would save them from being stacked and forgotten in industrial wastelands. Furthermore, steel is greener to produce than other popular construction materials. This is significant, since according to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the largest source of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions other than fossil fuel consumption is cement manufacture. Finally, steel containers are strong—providing support for accessories like green walls or solar panels—and stackable—allowing urban planners to increase population density and reduce energy sapping sprawl.

Container-based housing projects have seen success in some of the world’s major urban centers. Container City in London is a collection of multi-use developments that include offices, retail shops, artists’ studios, a nursery, a youth center, and a school, as well as housing. Keetwonen, the world’s largest container project and located near Amsterdam, is a student village in which each suite has separate sleeping and living rooms, a full kitchen and bath, and a private balcony. Finally, Platoon Kunsthalle in Seoul offers Korean and international artists the opportunity to work rent-free in the Platoon’s container studios for up to six months.

Back home on the East Coast, container-based living could be a solution to the dearth of affordable housing stock that could be relatively easy to implement. The online Shipping Container Housing Guide (www.shipping-container-housing.com) estimates that in New York alone there are about 1 million empty containers that overflow the seaport and clutter storage yards of the metropolis. The same website approximates the cost of a new 40-foot container at $1500-2000, with transport and handling included; used boxes are frequently liquidated for far less. Containers can be insulated, fitted with windows, and provided with sanitary and electrical installations.

Creative uses of shipping containers are not entirely foreign to the Boston cityscape. For several months last year, the waterfront received a visit by the portable Puma City, an 11,000 square foot retail store constructed from 24 refurbished containers. LOT-EK, the designers of Puma City, outfitted the space with myriad outlandish amenities, including a full bar, a sunning deck, and a dance floor. Just as these typically visually unappealing, utilitarian steel boxes can be transformed into an architectural anomaly whose sight interested thousands of people, they could also provide an innovative and practical contrast to the status quo housing represented by the Hub’s ubiquitous triple-deckers.

With only 8 months remaining during which HUD must begin to implement new permanent housing programs under the stipulations of the 2009 HEARTH Act, the reality of Housing First looms. Yet I would argue that in order for solutions to homelessness to be truly effective, they must represent paradigm shifts away from the typical “solutions” to which our society has grown accustomed. Therefore, legislative language that says people must be “rapidly re-housed” is ineffectual without the provision of adequate affordable housing that does not impose significant costs to taxpayers. Perhaps thinking outside the box of solutions to homelessness in America will mean moving into one.

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