Shipping Containers to Help Solve Detroit Housing Crisis

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Monday, January 5th, 2015
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An unusual home taking shape inside General Motors’ sprawling Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant is intended to be part of a movement to rebuild the city’s economy and deteriorating, disappearing housing stock.

Skilled-trades workers, taking breaks from their tasks at the factory that produces the electric Chevrolet Volt and other vehicles, dart in and out to do door, window and wall installation and framing, as well as electrical and plumbing work. Meanwhile, a nonprofit urban farming group is preparing property a few miles away that will welcome the project, what’s believed to be the city’s first occupied shipping container homestead.

Come spring, the house-in-progress will be delivered to Detroit’s North End neighborhood and secured on a foundation where a blighted home once stood. After finishing touches and final inspections, the 40-foot-long former container will feature 320 square feet of living space with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen, and will serve as home base for a university-student caretakers of a neighborhood farm and agricultural research activities.

One shipping container home won’t turn around Detroit’s housing woes. The city emerging from bankruptcy has roughly 40,000 vacant homes waiting to be demolished. But it’s a start and, organizers hope, a model to lure and keep residents as Detroit removes blight and recovers from bankruptcy.

Shipping containers converted into living or working spaces are common in some other cities. For instance, in Salt Lake City’s rundown warehouse district, a nonprofit group last year converted them into “micro-retail” spaces. A Seattle-based company designs and builds houses out of reclaimed containers.

Containers have been modified for both basic and luxury living elsewhere. But Tyson Gersh of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is unaware of another project involving a major manufacturer and nonprofit designed to serve many socio-economic needs through what he calls “social innovation.”

In a Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 photo, General Motors millwrights Mike Edwards, foreground, and Chris  …
Organizers hope the container project can lure millennials who don’t want their grandfather’s bungalow yet also provide predominantly poor, longtime residents with a low-cost housing alternative.

“Finding a place where both those communities can find common ground is beautiful,” said Gersh, president and co-founder of the group that operates a farm and owns property in the North End, where blight and vacancy are common, but so are signs of residential and commercial renewal. “It’s scalable, works for everyone and it’s also not going to ruin the environment. It’s easier to maintain and can repurpose existing materials.”

Gersh said reusing the containers and other components has environmental benefits but points out that people working solely toward that end “are doing it from a position of privilege,” and that’s “not what Detroit is.”

For its part, the automaker met with Gersh and others from the farming group a couple years ago, and the container home idea immediately resonated. GM spokesman David Darovitz said it fits with the company’s goals of reducing landfill waste while boosting reuse and recycling of materials. For instance, the home’s front door had been discarded by the plant and was salvaged on its way to the landfill.

“I loved the creative idea of taking and reusing an old shipping container and giving new life,” Darovitz said. “It can be used as a model for a bigger idea that’s structurally sound.”

Both GM and the nonprofit see the potential to grow the idea and are exploring ways to continue. But first they must finish a process that’s faced many challenges, including the long wait for the existing home on the lot to default into tax auction and finding a functional sewer line.

Another roadblock to building more storage container homes is figuring out how to price them. Now, Darovitz said, there is nothing to assess them against, since neighboring lots often are blighted or vacant.

Still, those involved aren’t deterred and view the effort as a microcosm of the kind needed to rejuvenate Detroit. They take inspiration from how city, state and federal officials forged deals with financial institutions and lassoed philanthropic organizations to save pensions and city-owned artwork and get through bankruptcy.

“That is Detroit — that’s what’s happening,” Gersh said. “It takes a village to make a functional city.”

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