Alacrity: That’s a policy choice in ending insubstantial quarters’ availability for homeless persons seeking shelter. Sadly, the advance of the novel coronavirus may force the hand of leaders in some urban areas, should chronic unemployment swell the ranks of persons lacking shelter.

For almost 20 years, I’ve been a Habitat for Humanity volunteer, although the intensity of my involvement waxes and wanes with my arthritic state. I love the fellowship of folks together trying to help a small family gain greater independence and security. I’ve had the honor of working on about 12-15 Habitat builds in central Arizona, as well as another 3-4 in Puerto Peñasco in Sonora, Mexico through Amor Ministries. I recite this only to point out that I’m familiar with charitable building of shelter for the under-housed. But neither of these organizations, nor any analogous organizations around North America, nor all of them combined, can under their present delivery models make a serious dent in the rising population of homeless persons. Why? In the case of Habitat, because the typical build lasts between 13 and 18 weeks to complete, a wide swing of time to account for different housing product and uncontrollable weather conditions. There’s joy in proceeding slowly, using volunteers that can work (ordinarily) only on weekends, doing redemptive, deliberate work to complete a solid if slightly imperfect finished residence and lot. And it’s too slow, when you consider that a finished Habitat residence accommodates typically no more than six people.

If Habitat doubled, or heck, quintupled its output, it would still be too slow to resolve the sheltering of individuals who, unaided, cannot make housing choices. The need for affordable housing is too great and currently seems destined to grow. America needs to act as if this were the aftermath of a massive natural disaster. This housing should be built at the rate of 50 thousand units annually. How is that going to happen? Well, it won’t, if local leadership doesn’t adopt two mindsets. First is that the problem of homelessness must be addressed in her or his lifetime, not later. Second, the concession must be made that template construction is going to result in producing indestructible, dependable shelters – not elegant housing. Decent housing – not fancy accommodations, produced under a few design templates. Will that, you wonder, mark that housing as made “for those people?” It may indeed – and if it’s sturdy and enduring, that’s the tradeoff – addressing the shelter problem, not anyone’s aesthetic preferences.

The raw materials to allow this sort of acceleration in production exist now. They’re cargo storage containers, cutting and welding torches, and insulating materials. There are thousands of cargo storage containers sitting in port cities ready for acquisition across the country. These containers come in very few configurations – they’re 20 or 40 feet long, and a bit taller (9.5’) for the refrigerated Conex boxes than the unrefrigerated sort. A 40-footer yields essentially 300 square feet of livable space, since nearly all Conex boxes are 8 feet wide – a respectable “tiny house” interior footage. There’s been a lot of writing on their conversion into housing opportunities. Here’s a recent blog post from April, 2020, from Curbed:

Template designs for single Conex boxes and combinations of welded boxes readily can be produced, because there are so few alternative sizes. It’s practically steel Lincoln Logs – type draftsmanship. (Sounds dismissive from someone not expert in drafting, but that doesn’t change my point, one reinforced by a number of Websites where designers are displaying their model homes built from Conex boxes. If you can design a tiny house, you’ve got this challenge in hand.) Templates could be created that retain a few “selections” for the prospective owner for windows, door styles and exterior colors. These types of dwelling units are now permitted by law in nearly every state. Part of the transition to their acceptability is the result of the tiny home trend.

The next step after seizing on acceptable template designs satisfying existing building codes is to allow for greater density. Even “protective” Oregon is considering allowing four small homes on lots currently zoned for single-family homes in its cities having a population of 10,000 or greater. Further, projects made from Conex boxes should be permitted with limited required parking to eliminate more than one required parking stall per dwelling unit plus a few guest stalls.

Cities with surplus residential lots should surrender them to builders under Development Agreements enabling tracts to be re-subdivided for lot configurations yielding humane if not upmarket density. Dwellers can plant vegetation in community gardens or containers on their individual tract and are free to decorate away inside these unit’s interiors. This is not mean-spirted parsimony. This is solving a problem. And by the way: What message is delivered by the NGO community telling a housing prospect there is a wait of many months, if not years, for their dwelling to be readied? Is it less shabby treatment advising someone to wait their turn, when sturdy housing can be modularly designed and configured, permitted and erected on slabs, in weeks instead of months or longer?