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Cargo containers are the new trend in affordable housing

Cargo ships are loaded at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016.
Cargo ships are loaded at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Cargo containers are no longer just for cargo. They're part of an architectural phenomenon that's being used to build affordable housing, including for the homeless. The concept is simple: renovate shipping containers into living spaces and stack them like Legos.

It's called cargotecture. And developers throughout Southern California have plans to use them, including in downtown Los Angeles.

"The idea is that they're modular. They can be, kind of, changed in and out over time in different ways. But they're not without challenges," said Gary Painter, director of the University of Southern California Sol Price Center for Social Innovation.

Painter and his team researched the effectiveness of cargotecture in San Diego.

"In some circumstances, the cost to retrofit these cargo containers can actually start to approach regular construction modalities. If that's the case, you're not really saving a lot of money," Painter said.

But even if the containers do not represent an immediately affordable space that will solve the housing crisis, Painter said cargo containers, and other small housing projects, are worth exploring.

"Cargo containers shouldn't be thought of as a silver bullet by any means. But we should be thinking about lots of different ways to provide housing. We've heard about economy housing where you have small micro-units for folks. Cargo containers are part of that continuum of housing those who are perhaps the most vulnerable. But it isn't just a simple thing like drop a bunch of cargo containers in an empty lot and we're ready to go with affordable housing."