Startup turns ship­ping con­tain­ers into cosy apart­ments

Times Colonist - - Life - MARISA KEN­DALL

When Luke Ise­man looks at the huge stacks of ship­ping con­tain­ers that loom over the Port of Oak­land, he imag­ines an end to the Bay Area’s hous­ing short­age.

With the cost of rent­ing and buy­ing homes con­tin­u­ing to soar, Ise­man’s Oak­land startup is find­ing cre­ative ways to turn cold, cor­ru­gated steel con­tain­ers into cosy homes.

Con­vert­ing a ship­ping con­tainer into a liv­ing space can be much cheaper and quicker than build­ing a house, and pro­po­nents en­vi­sion vil­lages of these box homes — or tow­ers of them stacked like apart­ments — of­fer­ing a fresh sup­ply of lower-cost hous­ing. There’s also po­ten­tial for a lu­cra­tive busi­ness model, us­ing the box homes as Airbnbs or other tem­po­rary rentals.

But ques­tions re­main about where res­i­dents could put their boxes, and whether city of­fi­cials will ap­prove the al­ter­na­tive homes. “These are su­per funky and not for everybody,” said Ise­man, the founder of startup Box­ouse. “But we have to do some­thing.”

Ise­man sells the homes for about $8,000 US for a bare-bones model to $50,000 for a fully loaded ver­sion with so­lar power, wa­ter and a sep­tic tank. So far, he’s made al­most two dozen, many of which he’s sold to friends or rented to ten­ants. Tiny homes like the ones Ise­man is build­ing have be­come trendy in re­cent years as peo­ple look to down­size and cut costs.

But so far, Bay Area zon­ing and per­mit­ting rules largely have not em­braced in­no­va­tive hous­ing ideas such as con­tainer homes — some­thing San Fran­cisco en­tre­pre­neur Den­nis Wong learned the hard way.

He had his own dream of us­ing ship­ping con­tain­ers to cre­ate im­me­di­ate, tem­po­rary hous­ing on empty lots, and bought a dozen con­tain­ers to build a three-storey pro­to­type. Wong hoped San Fran­cisco would treat his build­ing as a tem­po­rary struc­ture, like a food truck. But the city in­stead forced him to go through the stan­dard per­mit­ting process, which Wong feared would take years.

“They use his­tory for their frame­work of how to build ci­ties, and that’s a prob­lem for in­no­va­tion,” Wong said

So he aban­doned his plan and moved the con­tain­ers inside a ware­house in San Fran­cisco’s SoMa neigh­bour­hood, where he plans to open a small mar­ket with restau­rants and shops — treat­ing the con­tain­ers as in­te­rior rooms rather than stand-alone build­ings that need per­mits. Two of the con­tain­ers have been turned into of­fice space, which Wong’s startup, Camp­syte, rents out for $53 an hour.

Ise­man, a for­mer ad­viser at startup ac­cel­er­a­tor Y Com­bi­na­tor, plans to sell his box homes to peo­ple who will set them up in their back­yards rent them out on Airbnb. But in the long term, he imag­ines a utopia in which vil­lages of box houses take over Oak­land’s aban­doned lots, help­ing to end home­less­ness.

So far none of Ise­man’s box houses is le­gal in Oak­land, some­thing he hopes to change by ap­ply­ing for per­mits this month. City lead­ers, frus­trated by grow­ing tent vil­lages un­der over­passes and in pub­lic parks, have ex­pressed in­ter­est in al­ter­na­tive hous­ing. As an ex­per­i­ment, the city is work­ing with a group called The Vil­lage to set up tiny homes on city-owned land and cre­ate an im­promptu home­less shel­ter. The Oak­land city coun­cil also re­cently de­clared a “shel­ter cri­sis,” which re­laxes zon­ing and per­mit­ting rules to make it easier for builders to con­struct hous­ing for home­less or at-risk res­i­dents. That move that could help Ise­man make his con­tainer-home vil­lage a re­al­ity.

But so far, Oak­land has twice forced him to re­lo­cate his clus­ter of box houses. He orig­i­nally set up in a va­cant lot he leased on Man­dela Park­way in West Oak­land, but was told he didn’t have the proper per­mit to park his homes there. Ise­man then moved his homes to an­other lot in West Oak­land that he pur­chased with friends, but was warned by the city that he had two months to get out, or face fines of more than $1,000 a day.

Ise­man is work­ing to set up his first le­gal box house in Oak­land, and ex­pects per­mits will cost $3,000 to $5,000. He hopes the home will be ap­proved as an “ac­ces­sory dwelling unit,” or “in-law unit” un­der a law Gov. Jerry Brown signed last year to make it easier for home­own­ers to set up and rent out small apart­ments or cot­tages on their prop­erty. But new rules Oak­land set in re­sponse to the law say those units must be rented for at least 30 days at a time, which es­sen­tially means no Airbnb rentals. That could pose a prob­lem for Ise­man’s busi­ness plan, but he’s not par­tic­u­larly wor­ried — he doesn’t ex­pect the rule to be en­forced.

“Peo­ple very much ei­ther love it or hate it,” Ise­man said, of his Airbnb guests.


A ship­ping con­tainer is con­verted into a small house in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.