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In response: Give container housing a chance

Leaders behind effort have proven records

News Tribune editorials a week ago regarding efforts by Center City Housing’s Rick Klun and Wagner Zaun Architecture’s Doug Zaun to convert shipping containers into homes for some of our community’s most-challenged residents raised concerns. There are many reasons why this effort may well succeed, and skeptics among us would do well to exercise patience and open minds as the idea is explored.

This winter’s Workforce Housing Summit increased awareness of our housing shortage. With reports by respected developers that the cost of creating market-rate housing is $50,000 to $75,000 per unit higher than market rents will support, our community’s leaders are turning over every stone to create more housing. Why not explore an idea estimated to cost

25 percent or less of the cost of a typical apartment unit, particularly when there are plenty of examples of it working in other communities? I would understand opposition if the prototype already was built and deemed unfit or a site was identified that was not suitable. Neither is the case. So why not reserve judgment, as Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Ross wisely did in last Monday’s editorial?  

The nonprofit Center City Housing successfully pioneered permanent supportive housing via the New San Marco Apartments in Duluth and replicated similar projects successfully in St. Cloud, Minn., and Rochester, Minn. An hour-long field trip to the San Marco with Klun to see the quality of the building and to visit with residents who are gratefully and stably housed would do much to build faith that this organization knows how to meet the housing and service needs of its tenants. Klun has held focus groups with likely tenants, two of whom spoke publicly last month, vouching for their belief in the goodness of the project.

Recently, Center City Housing, the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority, the Duluth Economic Development Authority, and the City Council showed strong leadership in taking control of the Seaway Hotel, where many likely tenants of a container-housing initiative now reside. These partners (and their funders in the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency and Greater Minnesota Housing Fund) committed to allow current Seaway tenants to remain, assuming they behave as good neighbors, until replacement housing could be developed. The container-housing effort is the least-expensive means to meet this commitment and would be much less of a distraction from the community’s workforce-housing efforts than would an initiative that costs four times as much. It also would hasten redevelopment of the Seaway and further revitalize Lincoln Park along with businesses like Frost River, Bent Paddle Brewery, Duluth Grill and Clyde Iron, which are now finding success there.

Perhaps most important are the qualities of the leaders involved. The design work of Zaun and his firm is first-rate in aesthetics, sustainability, and quality, whether high-end homes, affordable homes, multifamily homes or commercial properties. Zaun’s affordable new homes have received accolades for design while successfully pushing zoning limits in the pursuit of affordability. Klun’s leadership displays a history of successful community innovation that meets multiple community goals, whether through creating housing with services for chronic inebriates that saves community resources or in 1986 founding Bay Produce where employees with disabilities still produce the only tasty, local tomatoes available year-round in our community. Klun has proved his ability to turn vision into positive reality.

This experiment is not a scheme of “Music Men” here to hoodwink Duluth into buying instruments. Rather it is a conservative idea that might help Duluth meet the moral test Hubert Humphrey spoke of regarding how the very young, old, sick, needy and handicapped are treated. Let us set high standards for this endeavor and lend support and encouragement to those working on it.

Jeff Corey is executive director of the Duluth nonprofit One Roof Community Housing (