Could Shipping Container Homes Help Solve Miami's Affordable Housing Crisis?

The wiring in Berlinda Faye Dixon's Overtown apartment building was all wrong, but the landlord refused to fix it. And when the complex eventually caught fire, he refused to repair the damage too. She lived in a smoked-out building for weeks before she was eventually able to obtain affordable housing.

Around 150 families are in similar situations in Miami. Unable to afford higher rent, they live in buildings wallowing in disrepair. The city is trying to help by taking legal action against landlords, but in the meantime, the residents are stuck.

"People are getting sick, getting hurt, breathing in fumes from mold-encrusted A/C units, drinking soiled water," says Adrian Madriz, one of the founders of SMASH (Struggle for Miami's Affordable & Sustainable Housing), which incorporated this year. "When it rains, water will cascade into bedrooms. There are rats and roaches in every one of them. I would not feel comfortable sleeping in one of those units for five minutes, let alone two years." 

But Madriz thinks he has an innovative solution: shipping containers. A proposal created by his nonprofit — and first suggested by Dixon, the board chair — would turn shipping containers into temporary homes for people living in Miami's slums. They'd pay minimal rent ($250 to $600 per month) to live there until the legal process was complete and their old apartment building was renovated.

Shipping container homes are used to house students in Amsterdam and have been proposed as a solution for a Mumbai slum. An architect in Dallas used 14 shipping containers to build a trendy, three-bedroom, 3,700-square-foot house called PV14

Madriz says shipping containers can be turned into homes quickly and cheaply: They take 40 days to build and range from $20,000 for a studio apartment to $70,000 for a three-bedroom apartment, according to estimates SMASH received from Hause Group, a Miami-based designer and builder of container homes. They also can withstand hurricane-force winds, Madriz says. 

"The container itself is very solid," he says, "and as long as it's attached to a solid foundation, it won't blow away." Under SMASH's proposal, the shipping container homes would be placed on city- or county-owned land. People moving into them from slums would sign five-year leases, during which the city would pursue legal action against the slumlords and rehabilitate the apartment buildings. At the end of the five years, the residents could move into their old buildings, which by then would be fully renovated.

The shipping containers are only a short-term solution: During the five years, Madriz hopes, the city would build permanent transitional housing. When the leases were up, the shipping container homes would be sold to interested buyers.

Between the rent payments and profits from sales, the homes should pay for themselves, according to the proposal, which puts the cost around $6 million. 

SMASH has been meeting with public officials to float the idea and see whether it's feasible for Miami. Madriz wants to get started as quickly as possible.

"These people need housing tomorrow," he says. "It really is an emergency."