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36 stacked containers would provide affordable housing for families, developer says


SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Carl Coffman presents his idea to build a 36-unit condo-style housing complex in St. Helens using old shipping containers that have been retrofitted for habitation. Coffman is a developer who works in Portland, but has been working to renovate the Muckle Building in St. Helens since 2011.Creating affordable housing could be as simple as reusing old steel shipping containers to build cube-like condo-style housing, according to a proposal by a Portland developer with ties to the St. Helens Historic Waterfront.

Carl Coffman, developer and renovator of the St. Helens Muckle Building, is proposing to build an affordable housing complex of multi-family units on a portion of the city's property on South 1st Street out of repurposed shipping containers. He brought his proposal for discussion to a City Council work session Wednesday, Jan. 18.

The housing unit Coffman suggested would consist of 36 separate shipping containers formerly used for overseas transport stacked on one another and modified into a cube shape, providing homes roughly 640 square-feet in size.

The proposal is based on similar units developed in Christchurch, New Zealand, to be used as a quick and efficient shopping center after an earthquake in 2011. Other examples included a student housing complex in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

"If the city of St. Helens does this, I'm 100 percent confident that they'll be in the national news by next year," Coffman said in an interview with the Spotlight Tuesday.

Wednesday's meeting was the first time Coffman presented the idea to the St. Helens City Council, but it's not the first time the council has toyed with the idea of creating affordable housing units in St. Helens.

Housing officials from Community Action Team spoke to the City Council twice in 2016 about the lack of available housing units in the county. CAT was forced to return funding to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year when the nonprofit couldn't find units available for low-income rentals or its housing renovation programs.

The population of St. Helens grew by only 25 people from 2015 to 2016, according to a Portland State University population study, compared to neighboring Scappoose, which grew 40 people. Scappoose is also undergoing a boom in housing construction with more and more families expected to move to the area. In simple terms, "a town needs people," Coffman said, and building something like this could put the city in a position to grow.

"St. Helens is a prime spot to try something like this," Coffman said.

After working in St. Helens to restore the historic Muckle Building on Strand Street in 2011, Coffman said he became familiar with St. Helens and knows that the waterfront property "is really unique," he said. His idea would be to provide housing units for families that cost less than $900 a month, including mortgage and tax payments, with a view of the river.

While none of the City Council members seemed overly eager to jump on the idea, several commented on the creative nature of reusing materials, while other asked how flexible the design and proposed site were in Coffman's proposal.

None of the details are set in stone and the plan can be flexible, Coffman said.

The housing unit could be put anywhere, he added.

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