Bay Area startup hopes to solve housing crisis by turning shipping containers into homes

Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News on

Published in Business News

OAKLAND, Calif. -- When Luke Iseman looks at the huge stacks of shipping containers that loom over the Port of Oakland, he imagines an end to the Bay Area's housing shortage.

With the cost of renting and buying homes continuing to soar, Iseman's Oakland startup is finding creative ways to turn cold, corrugated steel containers into cozy homes.

Converting a shipping container into a living space can be much cheaper and quicker than building a house, and proponents envision villages of these box homes -- or towers of them stacked like apartments -- offering a fresh supply of lower-cost housing. There's also potential for a lucrative business model, using the box homes as Airbnbs or other temporary rentals.

But questions remain about where residents could put their boxes, and whether city officials will approve the alternative homes.

"These are super funky and not for everybody," said Iseman, the founder of startup Boxouse. "But we have to do something."

Iseman sells the homes for about $8,000 for a bare-bones model to $50,000 for a fully loaded version with solar power, water and a septic tank. So far he's made almost two dozen, many of which he's sold to friends or rented to tenants. Tiny homes like the ones Iseman is building have become trendy in recent years as people look to downsize and cut costs.


But so far, Bay Area zoning and permitting rules largely have not embraced innovative housing ideas like container homes -- something San Francisco entrepreneur Dennis Wong learned the hard way.

He had his own dream of using shipping containers to create immediate, temporary housing on empty lots, and bought a dozen containers to build a three-story prototype. Wong hoped San Francisco would treat his building as a temporary structure, like a food truck. But the city instead forced him to go through the standard permitting process, which Wong feared would take years.

"They use history for their framework of how to build cities, and that's a problem for innovation," Wong said

So he abandoned his plan and moved the containers inside a warehouse in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood, where he plans to open a small market with restaurants and shops -- treating the containers as interior rooms rather than stand-alone buildings that need permits. Two of the containers have been turned into office space, which Wong's startup, Campsyte, rents out for $53 an hour.


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