Dan Rodricks: Turning cargo containers into homes? Why not?

Could the nation’s international trade deficit — the fact that we import billions of dollars more in goods than we export — help the homeless men and women who roam the streets of Baltimore? If that sounds like a stretch, let me connect a couple of dots.

Even with all the robust shipping that takes place through Baltimore and other ports, the United States has a steady trade imbalance with the rest of the world, and that’s been the case for decades. The latest report from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis came out last month, showing what international trade looked like just for October: Exports in goods and services were valued at $195.9 billion while imports were $244.6 billion, leaving a deficit of $48.7 billion for the month.

In all of 2016, the nation’s trade deficit was more than $500 billion. A similar deficit likely occurred in 2017.

One result of the long history of trade imbalance is this: empty shipping containers in U.S. ports. There is no shortage of those big steel boxes stacked high on cargo ships. Many people are aware of this, among them the entrepreneurial wife-husband team of Pamela and Christian Wilson, now retired from long careers in the maritime insurance trade and living in Baltimore.

The Wilsons want to turn empty, unused, unwanted shipping containers into houses for the homeless.

They put this idea in my head last fall when I stopped by their home in Charles Village to hear about their first venture into social entrepreneurship: backpacks of food — “weekend survival kits” — that more than 100 homeless children pick up at their schools on Friday and take home to their families. (Several readers of this column were impressed with the Wilsons’ project and have since made donations to it.)

Having established the backpack program with the help of the Maryland Food Bank, the Wilsons are now looking for partners to turn 40-foot-long cargo containers into houses. They’ve enlisted Jay Orr, a principal with ARQ Architects, to draw up floor plans for a row of container conversions that could sit on the foundations of vacant rowhouses once they are demolished or deconstructed by the city.

“The containers’ rigidity and portability make them well suited for this application,” Orr says. “And the idea is to make them fit into the Baltimore streetscape, not highlight the fact that they are containers.”

That’s a reference to something going on in the world of residential architecture — the recycling of steel shipping containers into homes and even apartment buildings. In the “little house” movement, it’s something of a trend — a trend within a trend, you might say — and there are numerous examples of cool, even stunning, abodes created from containers, jutting from hillsides in California, angular and modern; screaming in bright colors as beach bungalows in North Carolina. Being recognized as a container home is part of the point.

While that might make for exciting experiments in architecture, what Orr and the Wilsons want are practical, two-bedroom homes, with a kitchen, dining area and living area, the unit insulated against heat and cold, and hooked up to existing utilities and public infrastructure. Plus, in Orr’s design, using 40-foot (or sometimes 48-foot) containers on plots that once accommodated 70- or 80-foot rowhouses allows for a front porch, side yard and backyard.

Containers could also be stacked to create a second story. “A double unit would be for a larger family,” says Christian Wilson, “or a combination of a mother-daughter arrangement, first floor and second floor.”

“These are going to be painted on the outside; they won’t look like containers at all,” says Pamela Wilson. “The children will have a bedroom to themselves; they’ll be able to do their homework in a safe, stable place. I just think this will make so many families happy.”

The Wilsons have done a lot of research and believe they can do the conversions for about $20,000 each. They want to offer a family that moves into a container house an affordable rent-to-own deal. They don’t see the cargo homes as temporary shelter but as permanent housing.

The Wilsons have been to City Hall to speak with officials about getting started. They say they received a positive response, along with advice to line up some partners, particularly organizations already working on filling the city’s large gap in affordable housing.

I’ll let you know when the model is ready for showing.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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