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Our View: Converting shipping containers into low-income housing is a tough sell

The Fort Worth, Texas, nonprofit A Place to Sleep converted an old shipping container into a home to ease homelessness about three years ago. No one is living in the container house now after tenants proved bad fits. (Photo courtesy of A Place to Sleep)1 / 2
A home converted from an old shipping container about three years ago in Fort Worth, Texas, is cramped but certainly livable. (Photo courtesy of A Place to Sleep)2 / 2

No question Duluth architect Doug Zaun is as creative and brilliant and good as it gets. But look what he’s taking on: He’s drawing designs and trying to figure out how to convert ugly, boxy,

industrial-looking, cold, scrap shipping containers into little houses for Duluth’s homeless and toughest-to-house — and he needs to do it in a way that’s both attractive enough for any Duluth neighborhood and cheap enough to help fill a niche in our city’s housing needs.

Call it a difficult, if not impossible, task. And call whatever he and others promoting the idea come up with a tough sell — or worse.

“We just kicked off a process to explore this. (At this point), we’re just saying it has merit; it has a resume,” said Zaun, of Wagner Zaun Architecture, which is contributing its time and talents to the small swell of support behind this possibility. “It’s worth looking at because, you know, we’re open to unique, creative ideas, and maybe this is one. Maybe this works for a small, unique part of the population that could use some help. It’s possible we’ll say it doesn’t work like this but maybe it works like this. I mean containers are sort of a vehicle to think about it.”

Rick Klun and the Duluth nonprofit Center City Housing first pitched the idea of container housing in Duluth in March. It’s not completely new. On one end of the spectrum, developing nations and areas devastated by natural disasters have used converted containers to house people temporarily. On the other end, wealthy, think-outside-the-box types have been stacking and lining up containers to create extravagant, extreme, high-end homes. In between, containers with windows and doors cut into them and with heat and AC pumped inside have been used around the globe as hunting shacks, for college students, as apartments and more.

Containers for low-income housing hasn’t been as common. One of the first projects ever in Canada is featured on today’s page. But efforts in Texas and elsewhere in recent years attracted media attention but then fizzled. Costs proved too high; old containers weren’t as easy to come by or as cheap to acquire as proponents hoped; complying with code requirements made building costlier than expected; and, especially in urban areas, no one wanted the ugly metal hulks, whether converted into homes or not, in their neighborhoods. And who could blame them?

“The problem we ran across was selecting the individual who’d live in that house in such a way to indicate we can have success,” Mike Wallace of the Fort Worth, Texas, nonprofit A Place to Sleep told the News Tribune Opinion page by phone last week. “When you’re dealing with a population who have problems — mental problems, drug problems — you can have issues.”

A Place to Sleep remodeled a single container about three years ago “to show the public we could do it,” Wallace said. TV reports brimming with optimism followed. The container was placed on a

mobile-home lot. When a successful long-term tenant couldn’t be found, two more containers were connected to the first one to create a bigger home with three bedrooms and two baths. It sits empty today with plans to add a brick exterior and new roof but little money to complete the work.

The Opinion page asked Wallace for the best advice he could offer Duluth: “The No. 1 thing, and I don’t know anything about your state or city, but in Texas, if you build outside of the city, there is no inspection process. You can build whatever you want to build. In the city you have to have city building inspectors come out and inspect the process. Not once but several times. You don’t have to play by their games if you build in the county.”

If skirting safety inspections and building codes is the best advice that can be offered, Klun, Zaun and others behind this idea in Duluth ought to really think twice. Those “games” assure safe housing.

Also, building out “in the county,” as Wallace acknowledged, leaves residents of container homes far from the services and medical facilities they need, often without transportation options.

Klun, who is Center City Housing’s executive director, said he has been meeting with and talking with others for more than two years about housing Duluth’s “hardest to house.” We’re talking about men just released from jail or from the Northeast Regional Corrections Center, tenants who’ve proven to be too unruly to live in the New San Marco Apartments or even the Seaway Hotel, and people with mental health challenges, chemical dependency, traumatic brain injuries or developmental disabilities.

“People who don’t play well together,” Klun said of the tenants most likely to end up in converted containers in Duluth, the containers grouped together and fenced in with supervision and services made available. Klun said he envisions up to 20 converted containers in groupings he referred to as “villages.”

“Those people deserve a place to live also,” Klun said.

Maybe so, but where in Duluth might container “villages” be located? Potential sites haven’t yet been identified, but a demonstration projection, with a single container converted into a house in accordance with whatever designs Zaun generates, will go on city-owned land north of the soccer fields on Jean Duluth Road, Klun said.

“We’re not saying that this is for sure, but we’re going to give it a shot in terms of building a prototype,” Klun said. “Our intention is to build the prototype and then set it on the site. … And then we’re going to have four people, one at a time, live in it for three or four months and critique it every day and talk about the plusses and minuses. … And then we’ll make some decisions. But you know until we do that and until the city has a chance and the community has a chance to look at it, we don’t have all the answers yet.”

Klun compared the idea to the New San Marco Apartments in downtown Duluth, which offers supportive housing to chronic alcoholics and others who’d otherwise be on the streets. Skepticism and opposition to that project were fierce, but it has proven successful.

San Marco cost $175,000 per unit to build. Klun and Zaun hope to be able to convert containers for $30,000 to $50,000 per unit.

“We’re not going to serve everybody. But if we can serve 20 of them, 20 people (who) otherwise don’t have housing and are living on the streets, then I would call it a success. If we can serve people in a dignified way and a safe way. We’re talking about giving something a try. We’re going to roll the dice.”

While it’s hard to argue against finding a way to house even the hardest-to-house in our community — everyone deserves a home, right? — Duluthians wouldn’t be wrong to be skeptical of this idea or even vehemently opposed. The likely unsightliness of it. The safety risks that’d come from a heavy concentration of “people who don’t play well together.” Would anyone want a “village” in their neighborhood, even after Zaun works his magic? Surely we can do better.

Good luck to Klun, Zaun and others who’ll be trying, starting this summer, to sell this idea. They’re going to need it.