Housing: out of (and in) the box strategies

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

You could think of housing as the ultimate “in the box” dilemma.

Both literally, since most housing is essentially box-shaped (just ask any kid who has an appliance box to play with) and conceptually since housing problems seem to have the same, recurring set of solutions.

For most housing challenges, the options and potential solutions have barely changed over decades. From zoning to variances, building codes and lending rates, and a few other factors, little has shifted in generations. Construction rates, materials costs and, of course, COVID, have complicated an already difficult and demanding situation.

Some of these strategies have been in conversations for years, some are just emerging, at least in a practical sense. Some work within currently existing legal structures (like zoning) while others challenge even our most basic definitions of housing.

Some, like Habitat for Humanity, focus on home ownership, others focus on stable housing for renters – affordability is central to both categories of housing.

Homelessness is not so much a problem (at least on a policy level) as the inevitable result of the failure of housing policies on a larger level.

Familiar definitions, even of such basic concepts of ownership and renting have, in these most unusual times, lost traditional meaning or relevance.

Even what had been basic building materials (in this area, predominately wood) have come into question.

Even the idea of what constitutes “home” has changed.

Many cities (including Tacoma recently) have already or are seriously considering not only upzoning and ADUs but also incorporating non-standard structures for temporary if not quasi-permanent housing solutions. These strategies are emerging precisely because the preexisting formulas and policies have not been working.

In fact the one fact that virtually all, from any political or philosophical point on the spectrum agree is that previous policies have not worked and the problem, or even set of problems continues to get worse.

We need not only differing sets of solutions but also solutions that are both immediate and long term.

Yes, we need new construction, which usually takes years from initial planning to habitation to projects that can be deployed quickly and adapt in real-time to meet immediate need.

In other words, we need big, maybe region-wide policy changes and small-scale solutions on the individual level.

Every individual, and certainly every family securely housed (by whatever means) is a step, however seemingly small, toward stability for the larger community.

One new arena of housing solutions is the CityDorms system (https://crisalli.wixsite.com/citydorms)

The rules are simple: pay rent and don’t annoy the neighbors.

The basic concept is about as bare-bones as it’s possible to be: create a small, self-contained economic system as a safety net for those struggling with the traditional income/credit rating based housing market. Within these systems, anyone can earn volunteer credits and use those volunteer credits to pay for sanitary, safe and secure housing.

No income or employment requirements, no credit checks, no judgement, no violations of privacy, no behavioral expectations and no barriers. It’s not for everyone – but no solution ever is.

The housing units are miniscule: 8 x 12 feet with a sleeping platform, toilet, sink, a handheld shower, and most importantly, a lock.

It’s a radical, and to some of us, painfully obvious premise – every human being deserves shelter.

We’d arrest anyone who locked a pet outside in inclement weather, but somehow evicting and forcing a person, or family out with no resources is, and somehow has become, acceptable to most of us.

Consider just a few of these social and financial costs that could be addressed by even the barest housing options – improved public health and safety, reduced crime, especially civility infractions and petty survival crime.

On the more positive side, stable and safe housing promotes civic responsibility, engagement, and more positive interpersonal interactions.

It helps people build rental and credit history.

Facilitates addiction recovery and mental health.

Housing literally in the box

Another solution, one I have been looking at for a few years now is the use of shipping containers.

The city of Tacoma is evaluating the feasibility of using shipping containers.

To put it mildly, shipping containers do not fit every neighborhood or purpose, but they do fit some.

The News Tribune explored this possibility here: https://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/matt-driscoll/article251978443.html?

As any kid with their appliance box knows, sometimes, getting into the box, what ever kind of box, is the issue.

We in the Pacific Northwest, for obvious reasons, have emphasized wood construction, but in an odd, if not ironic, turn of events, shipping containers have been (literally) piling up in and around Tacoma.

What these shipping containers lack in aesthetics and charm, they make up in cost, security and near total indestructibility.

They are the ultimate low maintenance and ultimate adaptability solution for housing or storage.

They are easily locked, solidly built for transoceanic transport and are secure against rot, insects and rodents.

In wet earthquake country they are ideal – for some purposes.

The neighbors may not be too wild about them, but with the right design scheme, they could fit in most neighborhoods.

They are not an infinite resource, but they are pretty close.

It’s estimated that there are about 40 million shipping containers in the world (in 2020) and only about 6 million are in use. That means that about 35 million shipping containers are stacking up all over the place.

These metal rectangular boxes are, of course, just the beginning, zoning, transport and modifying are all going to impact your budget and possibilities.

But to put a little practical knowledge behind your vision, check out these designs and some approximate costs: https://www.24hplans.com/top-20-shipping-container-home-designs-and-their-costs/.

A local source can be found here: https://seattletacomashippingcontainers.com/tacoma-shipping-container-homes/.

Like every housing alternative, shipping containers are not for everyone – or every purpose – but they are readily available, relatively affordable and inconceivably adaptable.

In challenging times we need to use every tool in the toolbox. These are just two, but there are many more.