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Arizona Gov. Hobbs wants the border shipping containers used for housing

By Christina Estes
Published: Tuesday, February 14, 2023 - 4:05am
Updated: Tuesday, February 14, 2023 - 8:22am

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About 2,000 shipping containers used by former Gov. Doug Ducey to keep people out of Arizona could soon be used to house people.

In late December, after the Biden administration filed a lawsuit, Ducey agreed to remove the metal containers. They had been double-stacked to fill gaps along the border in Yuma and Cochise counties. His successor, Gov. Katie Hobbs, has a new idea.

“We’ve developed a plan to offer these surplus containers to local jurisdictions and nonprofits to help expand our inventory of affordable housing and shelter,” she said during an event to highlight alternative housing in Phoenix last week.

Brian Stark, co-founder of Steel and Spark, described the repurposed shipping containers on public display, "These are completely off grid, there’s no power hooked up to any of these containers."

The units, called Sparkboxes, are powered by the sun during the day and lithium batteries at night. It doesn’t feel like you’re walking into a steel container. It looks like a modern home. Each 400-square-foot unit includes a kitchenette with built-in cabinets, a full-size refrigerator, microwave and hot plate. There’s a bed and seating area and a bathroom with a toilet that incinerates waste.

Bedroom of a repurposed shipping container
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Bedroom of a repurposed shipping container designed and built by Steel and Spark.

“Every 100 flushes, you empty the ashtray. It’s completely benign, there’s no smell,” Stark said.

He said the toilet saves 2,000 gallons of water per person per year. The units have water filtration and storage, and a mini-split system that provides control over heating and air conditioning in specific spaces. 

Each unit repurposes about 12,000 pounds of steel. The containers are cut by robots salvaged from the Mercedes factory in Detroit.

Mayor Kate Gallego said advanced construction techniques are vital.

“It’s a real challenge for us right now in the Valley. We have 185,000 units that are permitted and zoned but not built yet. We have real supply chain challenges, labor shortage and more, and so having new tools to get more projects done more quickly is an amazing opportunity for us," Gallego said.

The one-bedroom, one-bath container home includes a kitchenette
Christina Estes/KJZZ
The one-bedroom, one-bath container home includes a kitchenette.

It takes about a month to build, deliver and install a Sparkbox and costs about $200,000. Stark’s company has built shipping container apartments downtown and Tempe and hw sees a market for shipping container homes in backyards — for people to offer as rental units and for adults who want or need to be close to family or friends while living independently. He says city and state leaders need to get on board.

“The times have found us, meaning everyone that’s in office right now and everyone that is on the private side trying to do something about sustainability need to come together,” he said.

Gov. Hobbs said housing affordability is a top concern not just for renters, “but also those in our business community who need a workforce to hire as the cost of living here in Arizona threatens to hold back retaining or attracting the talent that they need.” 

The Arizona Department of Housing paid Steel and Spark $1.25 million to build three homes, each with a bedroom and bath and two units without. When the Sparkbox display on the northwest corner of Second and Roosevelt streets ends in late May, the department will give the units to a nonprofit to provide housing for those in need.

An incinerator toilet in a repurposed shipping container home
Christina Estes/KJZZ
An incinerator toilet in a repurposed shipping container home.

As for the 2,000 shipping containers removed from the border, Gallego told KJZZ News, “I have expressed interest in these containers for Phoenix to use in a variety of ways in addressing homelessness and housing in our city. We are currently working to understand the procurement process."

Tucson Chief of Staff Lane Mandle said, “We are interested in receiving the containers and have held a preliminary meeting. How many containers we will receive and what the exact plans for them are has not yet been determined. The city of Tucson is looking for innovative ways to provide transitional housing to unsheltered individuals in our community and think the governor’s offer could provide a unique opportunity.”

Logistics are being worked out. Josselyn Berry, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said they’re creating a process to maximize the public good, as well as the financial return to the state.

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