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Crosscurrents

How a tiny shipping container community is causing a big fuss in Oakland

Here in the Bay Area, rents are rising, and housing inventory is shrinking. It’s forcing many here to decide -- either you have to leave the area completely, or you have to get creative about your housing situation.

There are people living in remodeled warehouses and RVs -- but what if you wanted to create your own out-of-the-box house?

YouTube is full of DIYers showing off how they convert ordinary things like buses and shipping containers into homes. But some experimenters are finding that city zoning laws aren’t set up to deal with their innovations.

People like Luke Iseman and Heather Stewart. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, they are drilling together sideboards for raised garden beds on a West Oakland lot they own with four others. According to the city of Oakland, a garden is about only thing that’s allowed on most of this lot. But they moved here, along with a few souped-up shipping containers that they intended to live in with a number of friends.

Stewart remembers the first three weeks: “I would get back from work at night,” she says, “and there’s a bonfire and there’s all my friends sitting around the bonfire and we hang out and talk and then we can all go to our own private spaces.

"I think that was really key, where like we had our own houses, we had our own personal space," she says. "But then on the weekends, there’s 15 people in the yard, building their own houses, talking, sharing tools, sharing knowledge. And it that was, like, so awesome to be around.”

Their converted shipping containers, now located somewhere else, feature hardwood floors, big windows and a full kitchen done in miniature. Stewart and Iseman outfit them for others through their company Boxouse, and can provide their most basic model for around $5000. Stewart’s current work in progress is a 20-foot container that’s eight feet wide for a total of 160 square feet. She’ll put French doors on the left side of it and a lofted bed in the back.

The lot that they’re now gardening in is on a block dotted with industrial buildings, but look around and you notice it’s mostly residential. In fact, after that three week honeymoon, neighbors begin to complain to the city about the container house village.

Stewart says she thinks the neighbors were aware of what was happening with the container houses.

“I think just being uncomfortable with the situation that they didn't quite understand,” she says. “We talked to some of the neighbors about it and they were like, ‘Well, it’s a good idea, but just not next to me.’”

Two of her neighbors are Ora and Willie Green. Their single story, celery-colored house sits very close to the fence bordering the Iseman and Stewart lot. The Greens say their discomfort isn’t with something new, but how that something new affected their quality of life. Ora Green cites the constant construction noise.

“There was a time, it was one Sunday morning, straight up eight o'clock in the morning,” she says. “They were slamming and bamming and dropping things, right next to my bedroom."

"So I asked them if could they please lower the noise cause it's bright and early Sunday morning and they laughed.”

And Green has a different perspective on the bonfires that Stewart liked so much.

“Instead of disposing of things, they were burning things," Green says. "One or two o’clock at night, burning stuff and then we're here in the house and we’re smelling smoke.”

And according to Green, the way the container village dealt with their waste was also a huge bone of contention. From her perspective, she recalls sewage seeping into her garden from next door.

Green explains that she's somewhat sympathetic to new concept housing projects, but that’s not what this felt like to her.

“What they had next door, in that lot, was like a shanty town. A free for all shanty town,” says Green.

And that’s when the Greens and their neighbors called the city.

At that point Rachel Flynn, the Director of Planning and Building for the city of Oakland, got involved. And because Stewart and Iseman didn’t have permits or zoning approval, Flynn says, the city had to shut down the site.

Stewart and Iseman say they had to clear the lot, and remove the containers or start paying $1200 dollars a day in fines.

That’s when the regulatory limbo set in. On the one hand, they can’t build out containers to sell to others because that qualifies as commercial manufacturing, and this area is zoned residential. On the other hand, the city says they can’t live in the containers on the site either because they haven’t complied with housing codes.

Flynn with Building and Planning disagrees that these converted containers are houses in the first place. Instead, she says they were made to ship things in.

“They could turn [the container] into a house but they haven't, I mean they haven't shown us how to do that. I mean in their minds, it's a house -- but you can't just -- nobody can just build something in the city and not get approvals.”

Flynn says that the city of Oakland supports alternative housing but her office does not specifically encourage it.

“It's not what we do,” says Flynn. “That's what the private sector does. They want to make money, they want to be inventive, they want to be creative, they want to be entrepreneurs."

"We enforce codes," she says. "That's what we do. We don't design, we don't invent, we don't make money, we enforce codes."

These codes aren’t going to stop Iseman and Stewart. They say they’ll keep at it, and continue to share knowledge and be very public about documenting it because they say the regulations will only change once people see that it can work as low cost alternative housing.  

“It's one thing to give lip service to sustainable development but then people who are actually not trying to live in corporate built structures have a much more difficult time of it,” says Stewart. “And that's a shame because Oakland should lead the way on this and it’s not that we're asking for any material support from the city, we're just asking for them to get out of our way, more than anything.”

Iseman and Stewart aren’t the only ones who want to experiment with a new housing style. Lured by the low cost, other people want to live in shipping containers too.

Camille MacRae remembers when the container they ordered first came.

“We were like, wait no, that's not our container, that's small, like too small to be our container," says MacRae. "And when we actually like saw it on the ground, we were like, oh yeah, this is our container."

MacRae and her boyfriend Colin Parsons are friends of friends of Iseman and Stewart. They’re planning the layout of their container house using paper models and finding that some things are better in theory than practice, like using magnets to add cabinetry on the inside.

Parsons and MacRae think it will take them about six months to make this container fully livable for them, but they really view it as a lifetime project. They're documenting their progress on a blog.

Parsons tries to think of it as an experiment: “We spent around $2000 on this steel box and hopefully it'll turn into something we can either use for a long time or we can sell.”

MacRae says they’re not exactly sure where they will ultimately put their container house but her long term goal is to live somewhere where she can walk outside and have some green space.

Iseman and Stewart, Parsons and MacCrae, all of their stories show how obvious it is that in this housing market people are looking for alternatives.  But until a city framework for unorthodox housing developments can be built, challenges over zoning issues are bound to be repeated.

 

This piece originally aired in July 2015.