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Containertopia: cargo container tinyhome town on Oakland lot

Luke Iseman and Heather Stewart were tired of paying San Francisco rents and had always dreaming of living in a shipping container so for less than one month’s rent they bought a used shipping container ($2,300 from the Port of Oakland) and began to convert it into a home.

They rented an abandoned lot near the port in West Oakland where they parked their new home and began renting out other containers to friends, while experimenting to create an ideal transportable home.

A portable home cheaper than a car

Their own home cost less than the price of a car to fit out. For a total of $12,000 and about 3 weeks of labor, they had added bamboo floors, a lofted bed, a porch, photovoltaics, fast Internet, a shower with on-demand hot water, a humanure toilet and a basic kitchen.

Working with just 160 square feet, the couple rejoiced in the freedom to experiment. They used $50 worth of LED lights usually bought “as a toy” to light the entire space, a camping stove as oven and cooktop and “instead of a propane RV fridge”, they bought a $150 freezer from Home Depot and hacked it with $20 in parts (sensors and an Arduino) to run on a third of the energy of “Energy Star $2000 refrigerators”.

Iseman and Stewart call their tiny homes “Boxouses” and they plan to sell them fully-built for $29,000 a piece. They will also provide plans for those who want to convert their own container.

Temporary housing for abandoned lots

One of the couple’s main goals is to set an example for container housing that can be compatible with life in one of the most expensive places to live in the country. “It’s largely indistinguishable from any other shipping container going down the road when it’s packed up. In areas where there are giant lots that are just abandoned I think it’s very feasible to at least have something for a couple of months or a couple of years where you just happen to drop your infrastructure and when you have to move it you move it. It’s a day of work, not a giant upheaval and court battle about an eviction, those things matter as much as we let them.”

Currently their homes are too small to be permitted in the area, San Francisco minimum size standard was recently lowered to 220 square feet, but Iseman and Stewart think the country needs more examples to inspire regulators/cities to allow for smaller and more portable structures.

“Trailer Trash Park”

“One of the things I wanted to call this was Trailer Trash Park like really parody the idea that portable, low cost infrastructure is only for people who can’t afford other options. That doesn’t have to be true, portable infrastructure doesn’t have to be poorly made, it doesn’t have to be energy intensive, it can be preferable to the things that are in place permanently.”

Iseman is clear that their small colony of container homes don’t conform with code both because they don’t meet minimum size standards and because their property is zoned for parking, but he’s not worried about being caught.

“Zoning can be a real pain in the ass and part of this is us not having dealt with that, another part of it is us just being risk-seeking and making a bet that enough people are sufficiently pissed off about how unaffordable it is to live in such a great city that the rules we’re breaking, we should have a good reason why we’re breaking them and a feasible path to how we could change them and then kind of go from there.”