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Thinking outside the box means living inside the box for some Oaklanders

on March 3, 2015

The Oakland housing market has gotten so high-priced that some residents have decided to think creatively and chosen a shipping container as their home.

The decision to live in a discarded steel box is one that Heather Stewart made two years ago. “For less than the price of one month’s rent, I decided to buy a shipping container and live in it,” Stewart said.

But a recent day in February found the blogger relocating her metal shelter with great difficulty.

In between the residential streets of West Oakland, two men with mini forklifts hauled the 160 square-foot container, as Stewart ran back and forth making sure the container didn’t tilt, or hit any private property or moving vehicles.

Evicted from the previous commercial land she was renting, Stewart said she was cited by the city of Oakland for not having permits that would allow her to build inside the shipping container and use it as a residential unit. But Stewart says that it was impossible to get such a permit, “since the permits don’t exist.”

How many Oaklanders live or work in shipping containers is hard to gauge, because it is an underground practice, and often illegal. City housing officials so far have declined comment on eviction or permit issues. Connie Taylor, manager of the Rent Adjustment Section of Oakland’s Housing and Community Development Office, declined requests to be interviewed. Michelle Byrd, Deputy Director of Housing and Community Development for the city of Oakland, didn’t return phone calls requesting interviews.

But Alameda County health officials cite concerns about people living in such shelters, including poor indoor air quality and toxic lead paint used to coat the metal boxes.

Meanwhile, sales are brisk, said Fernando Rivas, the sales manager of CGI Container Sales Inc. Rivas said he has been selling shipping containers for three years. “People living in shipping containers is becoming more popular,” he said. “The structure is already there, so it’s easy to build from that.”

Container sales have been growing, he said, adding that CGI Container sales made $1.4 million from such sales last year.

A person can buy shipping containers online. Most of the time, Rivas said, he never has face-to-face interactions with his customers. “It’s all done over the Internet. They request a quote, I send them a response and then they send me their credit card information. We never even speak,” Rivas said.”

But the problem with container living is that there are many health issues involved. Ventilation issues are a concern, said Soni Johnson of the Alameda Healthy Homes Department.

The biggest problem is the lead paint used in shipping containers. While no longer used to paint walls of new homes, Johnson said that “lead paint has not been banned for commercial use” such as shipping containers.

Lead is a highly toxic metal that may cause a range of health problems, especially in young children. When absorbed into the body, lead can cause damage to the brain, kidneys, nerves and blood, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website.

For some box dwellers, economic issues trump legal and health concerns. Stewart said she rented a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with three other people for $4,200 a month. Fed up with spending so much money on rent, she said, she decided to make her unusual purchase.

After paying $1,500 for her shipping container, Stewart then invested about $10,000 over two years on improvements like bamboo wood floors, a shower, a stove, and a cooler that she uses as a refrigerator. She has insulated and repainted the box. She even had a projector installed. She gets her electricity from solar panels that are installed outside the container.

Stewart and others blog on about their tiny house community in West Oakland, and encourage others to get off the grid, reduce their carbon footprint, and build “sexy sustainable housing from industrial waste.” The site provides links to buying the containers, and kits for converting them into livable space.

Metal worker Aaron Geman also lives in a shipping container. He has owned his box for six years. After renting a tiny room in a warehouse, he realized he could place his container at the same location, gaining more room and paying less.

So Geman purchased his container for $1,100. For $200 a month, he said he can keep his container in the patio of the warehouse where he does his metal work. It’s convenient and affordable to have his home next to his workplace. “I can do metal work in the middle of the night,” Geman said.

One day, he said, he hopes to buy land and build his dream home. But for now, he said he lacks the money to do so.

Although Stewart and Geman acknowledge that their living situation may be unconventional, or even illegal, both said they intend to live in their shipping containers for as long as they can.


  1. J park on March 9, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    i can understand the health concerns in regards to paint. Many factors including the Silicon Valley influx has influenced high cost of living for the BayArea. What happens if that market crashes?

  2. Olivia Nelson on January 22, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    I’ve actually been seeing units being used as homes much more often. Container sales have gone up because of it. In my area there aren’t a lot of homes but there are a lot of people who use them to build an additional room.

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