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Shipping containers: Next frontier for affordable Philly housing?

Councilman Jim Kenney has developed a prototype that turns the steel boxes into sustainable homes.

Councilman Jim Kenney is working on an interesting way to combat the city's affordable housing crisis: recycled shipping containers.

"You take two containers, take the middle wall out, bolt them together and you can stack them as high as six high," he told the Office of Housing and Community Development Monday during a City Council budget hearing.

Kenney, in conjunction with members of the Philadelphia Building Trades and Construction Council, has developed a prototype for the sustainable, low-cost housing at the carpenters' training facility in Northeast Philadelphia.

"It's really built very solidly and you basically slide the house, the two-story house – which is contiguous with the rest of the street – into the infill," he said. "If I were to take you to a house that's finished, you'd never even know it was there."

The containers are certainly not in short supply. "They're piling up all over the world," Kenney said. "China has a stockyard of thousands of them." And the Philadelphia-built units would employ union laborers: Kenney hopes to matriculate employees through workforce development programs, providing job opportunities for young people.

Environmentally conscious architecture firms have been using shipping containers in building construction for years, creating apartment buildings, homeless shelters and even shopping malls from the corrugated steel boxes.

"It's an intriguing idea," Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. agreed. "And talk about recycling."

Kenney said he was initially eying contracts with FEMA or the military to enable mass production of the units, but is now pondering if there is sufficient demand for a city pilot project to be successful.