SOUTH BEND — Ella D’Amico sees a growing number of developers looking to create new housing on the city’s many vacant lots, but she sees her nonprofit’s mission as especially unique, and not only because it plans to build homes from recycled steel shipping containers.
In addition to creating newly built housing for people with low incomes, ContainArt Community Inc. wants to educate and employ them.
At the same time, D’Amico says the group wants to borrow a proven concept from Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit housing provider that raises revenue to build homes by selling items at its ReStores. ContainArt Community hopes to generate money for its three-pronged mission by building homes and accessory dwellings from containers that can be placed anywhere.
While they will be new to South Bend, shipping container developments exist around the nation. D’Amico said she and her husband Jon have spent the past five years traveling to study the communities, in an effort to obtain advice and avoid repeating any mistakes developers made in starting out.
More:Homeowners reluctant to leave an empty nest. Here's why and how that might change.
The group recently won unanimous South Bend Common Council approval to rezone two lots, at 233 and 237 Pagin St., just west of the City Cemetery, to build four of the container-based townhomes.
D’Amico sees them serving as a pilot project, or “spec homes” for now, that will allow the public and potential partner organizations to see them finished with exteriors, drywall interiors and all of the other amenities of stick-built homes.
Those models could be critical to acquiring grants to help subsidize the homes’ costs for buyers, since some larger container homes will be priced up to $150,000 and traditional mortgage lenders could be leery of lending that much in distressed neighborhoods where property values are too low to make them worth their construction costs, D’Amico said.
“If Habitat for Humanity really will jump on board, if United Way really will jump on board, if Welcome Home jumps on board, that allows me to do a whole lot more,” D’Amico said. “A lot of them are kind of dancing around the issue and have said yes if you get them built we will throw some money at it… so that we can go in and appraise it and say this is the value, and from there on you’ll have a price tag for these.”
There already are nonprofit groups such as 466Works that are building new city-subsidized homes but those are geared toward middle-income, often college-educated buyers rather than the poor, D’Amico said.
“But there is this huge chasm of people who really are on the lower end of the spectrum who officially have no help,” she said. “The only options that they have are rentals that in a lot of ways are subpar and Section 8, which has huge waiting lists that are difficult to get into. I’m meeting people who are moving to other states just for Section 8 housing. That’s sad.”
The rezoned Pagin Street lots will receive homes that are about 1,200 square feet but D’Amico said a buyer already has ordered a smaller unit to be placed at 218 Pagin St. for $50,000.
'Not a market for amateurs:' Most South Bend area houses are selling in 10 days or less
D’Amico said some people already living in the neighborhood have told her they’re worried that the homes, appraising for more than the value of their homes, will cause their property taxes to increase.
“So I’m doing this crazy balance in between trying to do something that’s service-oriented to help with the people who live in the area, while also improving the area, while also being conscious about what the value of homes is going to do to the taxes,” she said. “So simultaneously building lower-priced homes but the idea would be to also have a sprinkling of homes in there that are not $30,000 and falling apart. In order to really renew an area and develop it you need to have a variation of housing and in value.”
The jobs and education components will come in the container homes’ construction, as people are recruited to learn skilled trades as they work on the homes at the group’s 206 E. Tutt St. facility.
While the city has yet to sign on with any funding support, its planning staff gave the Pagin Street rezoning a favorable recommendation. In presenting the petition to the council, City Zoning Specialist Joe Molnar showed aerial photos of the block from 1972, when it contained 48 houses, and from 2019, when there only 14 still standing. Since 1960 the population of that area, Census Tract 21, has declined from about 4,000 to about 1,000, Molnar said.
Council member Rachel Tomas-Morgan agreed.
“This is something novel, these container homes,” Tomas-Morgan said, “but I think with more familiarity with them … I like the energy efficiency that is described in these homes. The architectural rendering is quite handsome. I’m open to supporting such a pilot project, especially in an area where we desperately need to see housing stock increase.”