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Vancouver is weighing a proposal that would turn shipping containers into housing units on the Downtown Eastside.

The proposal, part of a project that would also restore a rundown hotel in the neighbourhood, is designed to provide housing for young women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, including some who may be working as prostitutes.

Starting with two containers that B.C. Hydro donated to a nonprofit housing agency after using them as a demonstration project during the 2010 Olympic Games, the project is designed to drastically reduce construction costs and timelines, says James Weldon of Vancouver-based JWT Consulting, which would build the project if the city gives it a green light.

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"A lot of inefficiencies in construction is all these multiple components coming together to create the frame, the structure," Mr. Weldon said on Wednesday. "You could, in theory, drop this on the site and be drywalling two days later. That would never happen on a traditional building. One of the major efficiencies is just the schedule - the longer the schedule, the more expensive stuff is."

Vancouver-based Atira Housing, which is also behind the push to redevelop the United We Can recycling site on East Hastings, put forward the container-based housing proposal after concluding it didn't have enough money to build housing on an infill site next to the dilapidated hotel, Atira executive director Janice Abbott said.

And while there was a possibility of longer-term financing and partners coming together, the need was immediate. Outreach workers for Watari - the nonprofit that will be referring prospective residents to what is being called Imoutu House - see dozens of young women every month who need housing and, in some cases, are trading sex to have a roof over their head, Watari executive director Michelle Fortin said.

"They are 15, 16, 17 years of age and don't want to jump through the hoops for a foster home or a group home or that sort of thing," Ms. Fortin said.

The container-based units - up to a dozen of them - would sit on the empty lot next to the hotel. They would supplement the supervised units in the hotel, which would feature a "house mother" and support including contact with the provincial Children's Ministry.

There are sizable, well-known container-based housing projects in cities such as Amsterdam and London. "It's something new for Vancouver, but it's not something new elsewhere in the world," Ms. Abbott said.

Lower costs - Mr. Weldon said containers might be available for as little as $6,000 or even potentially donated - mean that container-based projects could be used as a bridge to more permanent housing or as a stopgap measure on sites while planning or major redevelopment takes place.

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"Whether it is recycled shipping containers or modular housing, one advantage is that it can be easily moved," Vancouver-based real-estate consultant Michael Geller said. "So if and when that site is needed for a higher building or more density, those structures can be moved."

Lower-cost modular or prefabricated structures could help cities boost their housing stock while plans and money are being put together for bigger projects, said Councillor Kerry Jang, who earlier this year spearheaded a motion through council to solicit proposals for modular housing on city land.

Such proposals need not be restricted to social or low-cost housing, Mr. Jang said. "It's not just boxes for poor people. The real advantage is in time and cost that it takes to put together."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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