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Post-zoning in Containertopia: SF factory of container homes

When we first visited Luke Iseman and Heather Stewart on a formerly abandoned lot in West Oakland (CA), they were renting out space to friends to build tiny homes from shipping containers. The idea was to create affordable, off-grid, housing in the least affordable market in the country (the San Francisco Bay Area) by reusing cargo containers readily available from the Port of Oakland next door.

A few months later, the city was ready to fine them $1100 per day for living on a site zoned for parking so they picked up the containers and moved them to a recently-purchased site nearby. They were at the new location for only a few months when a neighbor complained and, again facing fines, they rented a building zoned for 24-hour-work spaces and set up camp.

Today they are renting space within their 2100-square-foot warehouse to about 14 tiny-home dwellers who pay $600 per month to park their container, truck, or house on wheels. Technically they are only allowed to work here, but for Iseman that definition is open-ended. “It’s a 24/7 art space and I’m just so busy with other stuff I don’t really know…. someone falls asleep, their mom can check on them, that’s not my job. I mean we don’t have any facilities that the big software companies lack at their offices.”

Inside the new “Containertopia” space (our term from 2015, not his), building is easy with shared tools, like a laser cutter, which makes cutting a window a 10-minute job. With steel prices down, containers are selling at about $2000 apiece: a bargain template for a home, according to Iseman. “It’s crazy they’re great building block LEGOS like super over-built, you can make 50 different mistakes and it’s still way more structurally sound than the stick frame houses that people painfully construct.”