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Housing Conundrum


Exterior of Containers on Grand

Housing is one of the key assets to generate wealth. Or at least that is the theory. Yet I begin to question this concept. Is housing an asset or is it a place to establish roots and build a community? If it is an asset, does that mean neighborhoods are assets as well? How do we support innovative development and projects without causing a negative ripple effect in the communities they are built in?

As the need for affordable housing has increased in Fort Worth, many options have been kicked around, including using shipping containers to develop housing. I will be honest in saying this is not an option I always embrace. Prescribing a cheap basic product reduces the work of charity or social services to a purely transactional effort. I give you x and I get y. This challenge is far more complex and requires more than a rubber stamp solution. The people effected come from a diverse array of backgrounds and each story is unique and requires its own treatment. 


Secondly, I feel it excuses the current model and paves the way for small, micro homes to be the next trendy item to become inaccessible. When we consider housing used to be way more affordable, it seems we are moving backwards on design, quality, and size. But to be clear, I am not against efficient and effective spaces that reduce waste and promote a sustainable lifestyle. I just do not want it to be a vessel that covers up the root issues such as wage stagnation or the increasing cost of living. 


However, understanding my perspective on this, I embarked to see what living in a shipping container could be like. As part of a research trip to Arizona to investigate Taliesin West, I decided to book a hotel for my stay in a new shipping container development. Coupled with the harsh desert sun, I figured it would be a good chance to see how this approach could handle the extreme elements. Built by merging two forty-foot shipping containers into a single unit and stacking them to make an eight-unit complex, I have to say it is far more spacious of luxurious that what I expected. Aside from some small insect friends that seeped through the seams in the restroom the stay was pretty comfortable. Once you step outside though, the exterior rears its ugly head, and you are reminded that you are in a container. 




Cost wise, it is not the most affordable option, seeing how a large chunk of the price comes from retrofitting the containers, building in additional support, building utility infrastructure, and staging a crane on site to set the containers in place. Additionally, it gets expensive and complicated bringing the shipping containers up to code. Cost gains only really come in cities where the price of land and traditional housing is so excessive that the container can slide in as a more cost-effective option. On this site though, the asking price was $1,000 a month with the rooms being rented for $50 a night plus a $80 cleaning fee at the end of the stay. Policy wise, there are major limitations on density, accessibility, parking, and height that come into play, prohibiting some of the high-density projects we see in Europe. With the concept still being fairly new, banks may not always be on the forefront to finance a project, requiring some additional efforts to securing funding. [1]


However, there is a bit of charm this efficiency model offers, especially for a single person like myself with no dependents. Quickly though I begin to think of the ramifications of my decision. Am I supporting future gentrification with this purchase? The surrounding neighborhood seems to be in the infant stages of a major metamorphosis. I seem to be caught up in a delicate conundrum of supporting innovative ideas and setting the community on a course for displacement. This seems to be the trend though. Build a classy joint, bring in some outside money, attract a new audience, then replace the current community. When considering this apartment, I rented, who really benefits from my stay? And assuming the apartment is not on the market for purchase or local leasing, how does it affect local property values? 


I must say, I am in a bit of a pickle with this one. We desperately need innovative housing solutions, but it seems often with innovation there is a cost for someone, somewhere. Uber optimized hailing services but put a strain on taxi drivers. Walmart brought unparalleled pricing but at the cost of local businesses and living wages. So, what do projects like this cost us?  If we go back on the idea of housing as an asset, what measures would keep a unit like this from having an extreme spike in cost? If housing is not being used by the locals, then who benefits from the development? Is it businesses, the city, or just the property owner? If we could make a model like this affordable then how do we ensure that the wealth stays with the community?


I have seen a few cities utilizing community land trust to provide stable house prices by having an autonomous organization purchase lots in a community. This strategy helps to stabilize value, prohibiting spikes in property taxes. It allows community members to have a stake in choosing what gets developed in the site. However, some recent conversations I have had with a few development professionals seem to suggest a potential downside. Stable land prices mean that the house will not accrue additional value and will limit the ability for a family to cash out of their house for an additional profit. This questions the concept of generational wealth and rather real estate is the best vessel to achieve this. 

Another concept out of New York called Just Green Enough, prioritizes small  parks and community gardens scattered through a neighborhood, rather than a large flashy project. The aim is to improve aspects of the community without attracting luxury development.


If one takes a housing approach, then perhaps some strategies shared in the Missing Middle Housing could be applied. With a plethora of housing types, the theory is you can get a better price. Yet, when you look at the market rate of these homes, the price can still be quite steep. In addition, it doesn’t seem to have a measure to promote stability or entry. In addition, the concept floats back to increased value, in this case the added value wider sidewalks bring. Is this the only core metric worth measuring and if so how do we go about prioritizing quality homes for an affordable price? More importantly, if walk-able urban communities help provide well-being, how do we get past the cost of entry? Is well-being something to be bought? 


This without a doubt was an interesting experience. Yet given the challenges faced with construction, codes, sporadic land value, and the overall effect developments like this may pose on neighboring communities, a viable solution is still warranted. The answer is not clear yet and additional solutions will need to be explored if we are to address the afforbable housing crisis.  





References


[1] Spula, Ian. “New Shipping Container Apartments Bring Market-Rate Rent to Downtown Phoenix.” 15 December 2015, https://www.dwell.com/article/new-shipping-container-apartments-bring-market-rate-rent-to-downtown-phoenix-6f7c3d41 accessed 20 June 2019

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