Shipping Container Housing is a Terrible Idea

I bumped into an article on how Detroit will join some European nations and build America’s first shipping container building. It got me thinking: shipping container housing is a terrible idea. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Why? Because it’s the “same shit, different day” and “experiment on the poor” urban planning faux-avant garde-ism that has failed so miserably in the past. Let me explain.

It’s a trailer park in the sky, a testament to bad taste. – The Free Lance-Star (out of Fredericksburg, Virginia), April 22, 1994

The AP wire picked up on the story and newspapers around the country ran with it: the City of Mankato was going to buy one of America’s ugliest buildings – four stories of stacked trailers – and tear it down.

It was 1995 and the Valley View Apartments or as I knew them, Tornado Towers,  were in the process of being demolished.

The day was memorable. I remember driving up in my Mom’s minivan as the bulldozers razed the site. My father drove up shortly thereafter, snapped some photos from inside his new Buick LeSabre and drove away with a $160,000 check from the City of Mankato (to this day, my dad still has the photos and a newspaper article framed in his office).

The name Tornado Towers, from my understanding, is an ironic testament to what can best be described as good luck. Before the building’s original owners went into default sometime in the mid-1980s, a tornado came through town and leveled nearby buildings and farm fields. One building remained: the stacked trailers (who’da thunk it, right? – as if the stacked trailer homes held together loosely by concrete pillars wouldn’t have been the first to go?).

I spent a good part of my childhood at Tornado Towers helping out as only a child could. In other words, my parents didn’t want to pay for a babysitter, so my brothers and I would pick up small pieces of trash while trying not to get in the way, break something, get hurt or all the above.

I don’t have many memories of the place. My dad recruited a few college basketball players to live there and I remember thinking as a child that one of them was the tallest man alive. There was the Hmong family that tied a goat to their trailer on the ground floor. That got a few complaints. Going up and down the staircase was scary and the elevator never worked (the empty shaft eventually turned into storage space). That’s about it.

The heating bills were astronomical, but it was tolerable since rent went for around $250 per month. In 9th grade science class, years after the tear down, our eccentric teacher handed students a book on heat loss in buildings. The thermal imaging of the building was one big red block. The Tornado Towers was used as a worst-case example.

Tornado Towers was originally an “experiment on the poor” system of public housing units. The idea of the late 1970s, when it was built, was to have cheap, mass-produced subsidized housing that could be moved at the owner’s will. For example, you’d get a trailer, eventually buy it from whomever, own it and move it to another location if you earned enough money to do so. That never worked out, and eventually the place found itself in mortgage default. Next, my father bought them … under my mother’s name (as he tells the story, the bank was offering anything short of giving it away and my mom must have had a better credit score at the time).

Tornado Towers turned around – not visually, but financially – the units were rented to college students and immigrants. It was close to the college and offered affordable housing. The place ceased being government-subsidized housing and turned into good old fashioned affordable housing – mostly by virtue of its ugliness and poor insulation [it was eventually replaced by something almost equally as ugly].

The place was hardly utopia, but was rich with culture and social diversity. The place was dumpy and borderline unsanitary – but never unsafe (it always passed health, safety and any other inspection strategically thrown its way in the City’s apparent attempt to get it condemned). The buildings looked terrible, but operated well.

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Shipping containers are the new stacked trailer homes. We should avoid building them at all costs. It is, as many like to say, same shit, different day.

It’s not that we shouldn’t build affordable housing – it’s that we shouldn’t build experimental affordable housing to fit the needs of a few green, trendy, idealistic populations who won’t be living there. The desire to recycle these unwanted containers is noble, but doesn’t lend itself to being as green as a building that can be built and stand its ground for hundreds of years.

It’s not always cost-effective either. Containers need to be converted to habitable places, apparently there are a lot of really bad chemicals involved, and moving shipping containers between locations doesn’t isn’t cheap either.

While I have fond, nostalgic memories of Tornado Towers, it was an unsightly and unfortunate place that could only attract poor students and poorer immigrants. It was built in the late 1970s and less than 15 years later, the townspeople were begging to have it torn down. There was so much pressure to get rid of it that the City Council approved buying the property for a third more than its market value just to tear it down.

The shipping container model is really no different: it’s the push for cheap, mass-produced housing that pawns itself off as an affordable, yet stylish and cool, housing option. They are still sold to the public as mobile units. The problem with this model breaks down quickly as the only people willing to live in these quarters are poor themselves, and those who dwell in them view them as merely a stepping stone to a better place. In some ways, shipping container housing is actually worse than stacking trailers – at least trailers are originally designed with humans in mind, not shipping mass-produced items across thousands of miles of ocean.

Shipping container housing may make some sense in impoverished areas, like the favelas of Rio de Jeneirio, or as shelters after disasters in Haiti. They should not, however, be assembled to meet the needs of the first-world poor. We should view these are nothing more than a passing novelty – especially in areas like the Midwest. Real estate in Detroit is already affordable, and it’s confusing that small, cramped shipping container units would be viewed as a better alternative than just building brick buildings (according to one source, shipping containers save only 5 to 10 percent on construction costs).

Growing up, I was embarrassed about my direct relationship to Tornado Towers (and how they were apparently ranked as one of America’s 10 ugliest buildings – relatives in Arizona sent us newspaper clippings from their local paper). Now, I embrace Tornado Towers for three reasons:

  1. I’m glad I got to experience a localized version of urban planning history first-hand, the good and the bad;
  2. the City paid my father enough to clear any debts, launch his own business and do well enough to help support our family, and;
  3. I can hopefully pass this message along enough times to stop, halt or delay any ridiculous shipping container project that may come up