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Florida Developer Leads Largest Shipping Container Multifamily Project In The U.S.

A development team is building a 52-unit multifamily project out of 130 used shipping containers in West Palm Beach, Florida. When complete, it will be the largest shipping container housing project in the country, according to Shelterforce.

The project, called Arts on Broadway, is in an opportunity zone in the long-distressed but gentrifying Northwood neighborhood and will include affordable housing units largely geared toward artists. Though the project was initially conceived for potential cost savings that shipping containers might offer, the developers found that in practice, there were financing and construction challenges because of the unique materials. Those wiped out any cost benefit.

Future homes?

“The projected cost savings have not materialized at all,” Jeff Crum, chief investment officer at Community Asset Preservation Corporation, told Shelterforce. CAPC acquires vacant and abandoned properties to revitalize as affordable housing.

The project began in 2017, when CAPC’s parent organization, New Jersey Community Capital — a community development financial institution lender for low-income communities — was part of a partnership that won a $5M grant for innovative affordable housing initiatives. The organization teamed up with Florida housing counseling agency Crisis Housing Solutions, which had been exploring container housing projects for years. A feasibility study found that using shipping containers would cost $105K per unit, about 20% cheaper than if built using standard materials. The city of West Palm Beach donated five parcels of land for the project.

However, the developers ran into unexpected challenges. It was difficult to find workers qualified to do construction specific to shipping containers, and financiers had reservations about funding for such a project. Costs jumped to about $145K per unit and they went through two potential builders before teaming up with a general contractor who had worked on container home projects.

“Someone who actually builds it can see efficiencies,” CPAC Director of Property Acquisitions and Operations Michael DeBlasio said. 

The new builder suggested design changes, such as stacking containers differently so that certain components like wiring could go straight up and down in the walls. The redesign let them use 20 fewer containers and cut $1M in costs, dropping the per-unit price to $127K. That was still higher than the original $105K per-unit projection, but NJCC helped raise the difference from a private opportunity zone investor.

Twelve units at Arts on Broadway will be loft-style with high ceilings, designed as studios/storefronts for artists. Twenty units will be ground-floor micro-studios/retail spaces. Units will be reserved for people making 60% to 100% of area median income, with 51% of those units reserved for those making between 60% to 80% AMI.

The project requires all custom work, highlighting the need for replicable, scalable models.

“Without scale, it’s not cost-effective,” Crum said.

Although companies throughout the U.S. create homes, boats, restaurants and even small communities out of shipping containers, the industry is still nascent and mass production is still elusive. To that end, Craig Vanderlaan, executive director of Crisis Housing Solutions, is working on a facility in a Jacksonville, Florida, shipyard that will repurpose shipping containers for construction projects and streamline the manufacturing process.