Hope on Alvarado – Homeless to get more housing in revamped, Lego-like shipping containers

Pasadena Star News

December 17, 2017

The workhorse cargo container is at the center of an architectural design craze.

It even has a moniker: “Cargotecture.”

Shipping containers are being recycled to create luxe homes and vacation getaways. Hipster food halls. A 40,000-seat stadium for the 2020 FIFA World Cup.

In Southern California, containers are being modified for a more modest but vital purpose. They’re being configured as apartment complexes to house the homeless.

“There’s a huge demand,” says Lisa Sharpe, senior vice president for GrowthPoint Structures, a Carson company that revamps shipping containers to be assembled as apartments.

“The impact we can have on homelessness is profound.”

In the pipeline

This spring, a 16-unit shipping-container complex that provides transitional housing for homeless veterans opened in Midway City. The Orange County venture was the first such complex built in California, if not the nation.

Now similar projects using shipping containers to house the homeless are underway in Los Angeles.  The developments embrace the “housing first” movement: The units are seen as platforms on which to rebuild, or at least improve, broken lives.

“There is a large and growing evidence base demonstrating that Housing First is an effective solution to homelessness,” says the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C. The approach caters to both the long-term homeless, including people who may be chronically ill or disabled, and those needing only short-term help.

The alliance says the projects save communities money because people placed in housing are less likely to need emergency services, including hospital visits and temporary shelters, than those sleeping on the streets.

Proponents of repurposing the containers for housing cite the steel containers’ strength and lower building expenses, including labor. GrowthPoint says their containers — used once for a shipment — are 106 times stronger than building codes require and can resist weathering for 100 years.

While a new building’s foundation is constructed on site, the containers are manufactured — including plumbing, electrical systems and insulation — off-site.

“They’re installed in a fraction of the time traditional construction would take,” says Keith Labus of architectural firm KTGY’s Irvine office.

KTGY is the designer for Hope on Alvarado in Los Angeles, a shipping-container apartment building expected to begin construction in early 2018.

FlyAwayHomes, another enterprise with a homeless housing project in the works, estimates that GrowthPoint can cut construction time to six months from the two to three years typically needed.

Scott Baldridge of Aedis Real Estate Group, the developer of Hope on Alvarado, says they intend to replicate the effort in urban areas elsewhere. He calls the planned 84-unit building at 166 Alvarado St. just “a drop in the bucket.”

Nor does FlyAwayHomes intend to build one and be done. A single building, says Kevin Hirai of FlyAway, would be “of zero impact.”

A report released this month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development month showed nearly 554,000 homeless people across the nation from local counts in January 2017, up nearly 1 percent from 2016.

Of that total, 193,000 people had no shelter at night and were staying in vehicles, tents, the streets and other locations deemed uninhabitable. That figure rose by more than 9 percent since 2015.

GrowthPoint, which modified the shipping containers for Potter’s Lane and will be providing them for Hope on Alvardo and FlyAway, says more containers meant for that purpose are in the pipeline.

Currently, the company has committed to manufacturing another 200,000 square feet for homeless housing, the equivalent of about 400 beds, Sharpe says. About 50,000 of that will go to supportive housing projects in the Bay area.

To help meet the demand, GrowthPoint has moved from its 12,000-square-foot factory near Dodger Stadium, where the containers for Potter’s Lane were produced, to a 119,000-square-foot facility in  Carson.

Living spaces

Hope on Alvarado will rise to five stories, including a concrete podium with meeting rooms and parking, and above that, four stories of shipping container homes. The development will be located west of downtown in the Westlake area of Los Angeles. Construction is expected to take six months.

Modifications to the containers include removing doors and parts of the exterior metal skin and adding floor-to-ceiling windows and interior fixtures and finishes. The containers will be trucked to the construction site, where a crane will lift and stack them. Then they’ll be welded together.

The building’s studio and one-bedroom apartments will be 400 to 480 square feet. The development is located in a dense area near public transportation, so residents without cars can get to jobs and elsewhere. The building will provide residents with space for bicycles, but parking will be reserved for social service workers.

FlyAwayHomes has broken ground at its own project on Colden Avenue in South Los Angeles. That development will include eight, four-bedroom units and one for the building manager. The social services to be offered by a non-profit organization will be similar to that in other permanent supportive housing.

The project will be funded entirely through private equity, says Hirai, chief operations officer at FlyAway. The developer also will be the landlord. Once five to seven such developments are created, FlyAway would be sold into a “social impact” equity fund. Such funds seek to generate a benefit to society, not only a financial return.

“If we can prove we can do this with private money, people will be much more willing to invest in it,” he says. “That’s where the funds could become limitless. The capital will be there.

“Then we can really make a dent in the problem.”