ORLANDO — Central Florida might soon become one of the few places in the nation using metal shipping containers to build affordable apartment complexes.
JPMorgan Chase funded $600,000 so that the nonprofit Crisis Housing Solutions could launch about two dozen units expected to rent for less than $1,000, about three-fourths the median rental rate of $1,300 in Orange County, where the county seat is Orlando. Now the nonprofit is scouting for a site with at least a half-acre in metropolitan Orlando, particularly near downtown or in Kissimmee, Fla.
"I think there are a lot of people out there who really like the idea," said University of Florida adjunct architecture professor Stephen Bender, part of the nonprofit's team. "What we don't have in Florida are these chic industrial apartments. They have a certain funkiness, a certain authenticity."
Project backers said the metal-frame apartments, 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, are aimed at millennials, baby boomers and anyone else on a budget and seeking nontraditional living quarters. Government subsidies aren't part of the plans, they said.
"We have a young workforce, young talent and college graduates. When and if they get a job, they can barely afford to get a place," Crisis Housing co-founder Craig Vanderlaan said. "They are leaving the state. Senior citizens are having a hard time finding affordable housing too."
Shipping-container houses, shops and workspaces are more common in urban areas of Europe and are beginning to emerge in a few U.S. markets. In Orange County, Calif., the nonprofit American Family Housing built a two-story shipping-container apartment complex for veterans. It has 16 units, each smaller than 500 square feet. Las Vegas has a container-built shopping center. And in Florida, a restaurateur in Miami's Wynwood community used containers to build an eatery for 25 patrons. Bender designed two houses built in the Gainesville, Fla., area.
The relatively new concept in residential construction anchors the shipping containers to a concrete pad. Generally, the sides of two units are connected and the adjoining walls removed to open up 640 square feet of living space. An internal support system is key to the structures, which can also feature balconies, overhangs, windows and new walls for bedrooms and bathrooms. The projects are generally three stories or fewer. For the units proposed in the Orlando area, the size could double to offer three-bedroom units.
Construction costs are less because of savings on labor and materials, which enables Vanderlaan to estimate rent at less than $1,000.
Even though Florida has a few similar projects, most building officials in the state are unfamiliar with the concept, which isn't part of the state's building code. But supporters say building plans could be approved by submitting engineering reports and that various city and county officials have been receptive to the prospect.
Orlando has not seen a formal proposal but has building codes that could accommodate the project, said a spokeswoman for the city.
"It would be considered a form of modular housing, which our code allows for," Cassandra Lafser said.
Last year, metro Orlando ranked third nationally for its lack of housing for extremely low-income residents, according to a National Low Income Housing Coalition study that compared median wages with rents.
The housing needs call for fresh approaches, said former Orange County Chairman and HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, who is now Southeast chairman at JPMorgan Chase.
"The health of our state, local communities and our future prosperity are on the line when Floridians lack access to affordable housing," he said. "We must work together to come up with innovative solutions to address this critical issue."
Vanderlaan said he first came across the concept three years ago while visiting family in the Netherlands, where the containers have been used to construct student housing, offices and other structures. With backing from JPMorgan Chase and input from the University of Florida's Shimberg Center, the nonprofit hired Meridian Appraisal Group to study the prospects for container-shipping housing in five areas of both metro Orlando and the Fort Lauderdale area's Broward County, which have mounting needs for affordable rentals.
In the Orlando area, Crisis Housing Solutions seeks donated sites near jobs in downtown Orlando or Kissimmee, but Vanderlaan said his group would locate elsewhere in the region to take advantage of land donations. Low-cost property, he said, would keep down rental costs. But even without a donation, Crisis Housing has financial backing and will still proceed, he said.
Crisis Housing Solutions Deputy Director Mike Smith said he was confident about getting local support for the Central Florida project. "We do not see that as a major obstacle," he said.