The state of San Francisco’s affordable housing situation could best be summed up as scary, discouraging, sad, impossible.
Instead of resigning themselves to the fact that they’ll forever be paying through the nose for a criminally overpriced two-bedroom or eventually be forced to flee the Bay Area altogether, Luke Iseman and Heather Stewart decided to embrace San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis as a challenge of sorts, a call to go out and do something, well, different. And while they're still paying rent in their new living situation, Iseman and Stewart are doing it very much on their terms from the comfort of an off-grid shipping container-turned-tiny home situated on a half-acre lot in West Oakland.
“We shouldn’t have to live in the middle of nowhere to afford to build our own house. We should be able to do that in one of the most expensive cities in the world,” explains Iseman, a tech-savvy young "maker" and urban agriculture enthusiast who co-founded the Wi-Fi-connected plant sensor Edyn earlier this year. “We were tired of paying rent in the Mission so for less than our rent on our old two-bedroom we rented this whole half-acre and kind of lightly tested the landlord ahead of time. We were like ‘we’re just going to build small houses here and you’re going to get an automatic payment of rent every month and don’t worry about it.’”
I like the way this guy thinks.
As evidenced in the latest video from faircompanies, the half-acre lot in question isn’t exactly the most immediately welcoming of spaces. “What is this?” wonders faircompanies documentarian Kirstin Dirsken as she first passes through the graffiti-covered fencing that surrounds Iseman and Stewart’s abandoned-junkyard-turned-container home compound. Iseman says of the slightly menacing Mad Max atmospherics: “It’s pretty much my dream post-apocalyptic cyberpunk set-up.”
Iseman is quick to point out that his own tiny container home, at 160-square-feet, isn’t exactly legit. The sames goes for the other finished container home that he and Stewart simultaneously renovated and are currently renting out to friends. A third container home located on the property is in the process of being retrofitted by another friend.
“It’s totally illegal to have a house this small,” says Iseman of housing code regulations that require dwellings to meet slightly more spacious square footage minimums. “So our plan is to basically experiment here.” He also mentions that in terms of zoning, they're renting a parcel zoned as a parking lot, not a residential plot.
Thus far, Iseman and Stewart's off-grid colony of "Boxouses" hasn't run afoul with the City of Oakland and the only official complaint has come from a neighbor about their dog’s barking. “Same as it would be in the 'burbs,” jokes Iseman. “Oakland has way better things to worry about than people trying to build off-grid houses and live in them.”
As for the couple’s own compact residence, it cost in the ballpark of $12,000 to convert a single seafaring cargo box to a habitable space and includes a composting toilet, rooftop photovoltaics, bamboo flooring and a cozy lofted queen-size bed. Retrofitted with recycled building supplies and RV/camping equipment, the very-much-a-work-in-progress living space — the retired container itself was purchased for $2,300 directly from the Port of Oakland — also includes plenty of clever hacks that allow the couple to take full advantage of a minimum amount of space while keeping costs at a bare minimum.
“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,” says Iseman. “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.”
Head on over to the Boxouse website to learn more about Iseman and Stewart’s growing tiny container house community in West Oakland. In the near future, Iseman and Stewart plan to sell fully-outfitted, Boxouse-branded container homes for a little less than $30,000 a pop. DIY types can also snag plans/instructions created by Iseman and Stewart on how to retrofit their own containers.
Reads the Boxouse website:
We're not getting rich, but we are close to breaking even. More importantly, we're living in a solar-powered, sustainable home we built for less than the cost of a car. Chickens in the yard, fast internet, occasionally-alive gardens, and providing affordable homes for our friends: it's getting harder and harder to consider our sustainability a sacrifice. We've got giant problems, but technology presents us with more power than ever to fix them. We hope you'll learn a bit from our mistakes and join us in building sexy, sustainable housing from industrial waste!
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