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City authorities turn to shipping containers to combat homelessness


December 7, 2012

It seems authorities are catching on to the potential of shipping containers (Photo: Gary Blakeley/Shutterstock)

It seems authorities are catching on to the potential of shipping containers (Photo: Gary Blakeley/Shutterstock)

Independent schemes in the New York, USA and Brighton, UK are putting the humble shipping container to work as an effective source of low-cost housing to combat the problem of homelessness. The two schemes are poles apart in scope, and designed to address vastly differing causes of homelessness, however.

Though New York's homelessness problem has been made all the more acute by the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, The New York Observer reports that Mayor Bloomberg's administration has been developing a disaster-response housing program for five years.

The specifics of the scheme are yet to be finalized, though one idea is to use 40-foot (12-meter) containers as individual apartments, with a window and door added at each end. Arranged en masse, it's hoped that containers could house tens or hundreds of thousands of people, though larger apartments made from modified containers would be needed to house families.

"Just because it’s prefab doesn’t mean it has to be an eyesore," David Burney, commissioner of the New York's Department of Design and Construction told the Observer, pointing out that the apartments would be larger than the typical Manhattan studio apartment.

The next step is to construct a 16-apartment test case near the Brooklyn Bridge near the headquarters of the Office of Emergency Management, who are cooperating with the program.

Unfortunately the program has not come in time to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which is thought to have made 20,000 New Yorkers homeless in the long term. However, also talking to the Observer, CUNY architecture professor described New York as being "ahead of the curve" in its plans for long-term for emergency-response housing.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, at the English seaside town of Brighton, a local housing trust has submitted a planning application for a rather more modest proposal. The Brighton Housing Trust is hoping that its scheme to put 36 modified containers to use as studio flats.

According to the Press Association, the plan is a response to a growing homelessness problem in the town, which reportedly faces a housing shortage.

Though much smaller in scope, the Brighton scheme is also more advanced. In fact, the containers appear to have already been converted into studio apartments complete with bathrooms and kitchens, subdivided with plasterboard walls.

The modifications as part of a similar problem envisaged for Amsterdam that subsequently hit funding difficulties. The new plan would see those containers sent off to Brighton where they would be installed with allotment gardens on top.

The Trust is to submit a planning application to the city council.

Sources: The New York Observer, Press Association

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life. All articles by James Holloway

Containers have been used in quake ravaged Christchurch in New Zealand on Cashel Street Mall. They look pretty unique and not an eyesore. Christchurch has lot of homeless and displaced people. This container idea would be a temporary solution until permanent houses and shops are built. Containers are reasonably earthquake proof.

Haykey Kaariainen

Back in June, Gizmag ran this story: 'Mayor Bloomberg announces tiny housing design competition for NYC'. At 275 to 300 sq. ft., these were smaller than a 40 foot shipping container. I came up with a few designs myself, but didn't submit them because the company I work for does glazing, not general contracting.

I don't think there is any doubt that shipping containers could be used for housing. The questions are, how much will they cost to refurbish and refit, and what will the building codes be that are applied to them? Also, where would you put this type of housing?


Housing shortages are not caused by a lack of shipping containers. And neither is drug abuse. Housing shortages are caused by anti-development, anti-gentrification hippies who think shipping containers are much more cool, hip - and 'green'.

Imagine what the inside of those shipping containers will look like after 6 mos of occupancy by heroin addicts. Would any of the designers of this project care to share a container and raise a family?

Of course not. This is green feelgood posturing only... for hipsters to sketch out.. not to actually do.

It's not cool or politically correct to pick up homeless people and cure them so that they can be happy and productive, and no longer homeless. That'll never happen.

It is, however cool and politically correct to put them in shipping containers.

Todd Dunning

I was under the impression that the Brighton project was based on the idea of the Amsterdam Keetwonen student housing project that opened in 2006 and has now had its life extended to at least 2016, which is not bad for the largest container housing project in the world.


I think it's a great idea. The potential for rapidly shifting these containers to where they're needed is there, provided you're near a seaport or rail line. It'd be hell trucking enough of them in to do any good.

It is possible to design a pre-fab system that could slide into place inside the container and unfold to provide insulation and utilities. The issue is, as always, money and how do you pre-position them to do the most good?

Even with the obvious advantages such a system has, the idea brings to mind the darker scenes from William Gibson and Neal Stephenson novels.


Put them on golf courses!

Joel Detrow

I SOOO agree with Joel ! Todd you obvious only THINK you know something about homelessness, yeah there's addicts there but I've met people that had degrees there as well, from EVERY walk of life do the homeless come !!! Don't look down upon them, offer a hand up as a good god fearin man should. I'm about to be homeless AGAIN and avg.$20-30/hr most of my life... things happen The labor to can be found in the homeless population itself, there are plenty of skilled workers there as well as folks that just want to help and are willing to help themselves up if just given the opportunity This is an excellent idea & most towns are very near the RR system.

Tom Collins

The very first example of this thinking was created by me to my own designs during the early 1970's. We called them Portable Housing Units and if my memory serves me the very first unit was shipped to France from our Southampton UK base; Drake & Coles Containers Limited which had been set up to repair freight containers and trailers. (Indeed, we became the largest repairers of Aluminium freight containers in the UK). I still have the excellent drawings of multiple units which were drawn for me by the late Laurie Dodd at his home studio location in the New Forest. Shortly thereafter, we were forced into bankruptcy by dock strikes; and at that time, no one was interested in developing new ideas like this. So there you go; when your Professor tries to sell this as new thinking; you can tell him/her, they are 40 years too late. :)

Chris Coles
It'd be nice if Mayor Bloomberg led by example: why didn't he swap his ultra-modest palace for this kind of exclusive hut? The choice of a container ship as the article's main image is a bit awkward - any hint at homeless being shipped out for good? YuraG

Seems to me Neal Stephenson was a bit prescient when he wrote Snow Crash!

Bob Fately

Search for " Amsterdam Scum villages" they want to use containers to house dissidents & misfits drug addicts other petty criminals who are unhappy with their society in these containers under constant police guard. It is not a far stretch after they make a "Success" out of the disaster relief efforts to justify a further push what amounts to gulags for the poor In out of the way under developed areas with no jobs in reach guaranteeing a permanent life of poverty and crime.

Joseph Mertens

I frankly don't understand why (so many) people insist on living in New York (or really any of the worlds over priced and over populated cities). Living in Boston (also over priced and under serviced) is bad enough, but I don't think shipping containers are going to solve a problem that has a lot more to do with human stubbornness and systemic corruption than actual lack of resources.

Charles Bosse
Around here the ability to effectively air condition is a huge requirement. Without that feature a shipping container would act like the family oven only they would be the turkeys. That said I like railway cars better as a solution. Railway cars tend to stand up to hurricanes and even tornadoes while normal housing blows apart. Shipping containers simply lack the strength and security of a railway car. For urban areas windows too small for burglars and a door and frame of steel built to resist a burglar with a sledge hammer would solve many problems. A wooden door frame is almost an invitation that reads please break in and rob or kill me. Jim Sadler

The homeless problem is political, not an actual one. Almost everyone if allowed to rent at market rates a 5x10' piece of land could make a home inexpensively. But they are not allowed to by laws regulations.


Next put them on pontoons so they float like house boats or make barge towns where the waters have overtaken the land. Try gerrymander that. Tee hee.

(Sci fi writers - your welcome.)


Every major port has 1K plus containers for housing alone & seen concepts for Mini cities See Trendhunter.com shipping containers. Huge market for esp these days. Or reuse for shelters Underground for End Times.'

Stephen Russell

A few years ago there was a proposal to use obsolete cruise ships in San Francisco as housing for the homeless.

There were to be conditions for the occupants, no drugs, smoking or alcohol and they had to take classes so they could learn the skills required to get and hold a job.

The city government quickly put the brakes on that plan. That'd be a solution to the problem so many of them had campaigned on working to solve. Solve the problem and then what'll the politicians promise (lie about) to fix to get re-elected?

Gregg Eshelman

Chris, Thank you, I at 43, just finished my Degree in Ecological design. In one of my early classes we had containers as a design project. All socioeconomic issues aside, it was fun. What amazed me wasn't the concept but the 12 different visions from 12 people. No two design were anywhere near alike...Thanks again for history lesson. Justin

Justin Schetrompf
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