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Shipping Containers Are Not Housing

Manchester's developers and charities are proposing to house the homeless in shipping containers. The move is part of a trend of inhumanity disguised as stylish efficiency.

It seems that to talk about Manchester today is to talk about housing inequality. For those who watched Channel 4’s Manctopia last year, Manchester’s colossal problem with homelesness will not come as news. Neither will its exponential luxury property boom. As monolithic skyscrapers go up and cranes dominate the skyline, there is an estimated 5,500 people homeless in the Greater Manchester area.

One thing Manctopia made apparent is that in the land of big-money property development,  if a concession to affordable or social housing is made, it is exactly that – a concession. So curiosity was piqued this week when plans for a 40-unit housing development offering opportunities to work, a community hub, and individual living spaces housed within shipping containers for ‘vulnerable and homeless men’ were launched. The solution to the problem, it seems, is aluminum.

Located in the city’s desirable Castlefield area, nestled under striking Victorian railway arches, Embassy Village’s branding possesses all the buzzwords and graphic hallmarks of an up-market housing complex; porthole windows and festoon lighting and ‘wrap-around services’. According to Embassy Village’s website, they operate as a housing provider rather than a shelter. Only those who are ‘ready and, crucially, keen to work’ are accommodated. They say that their ‘aim is to reintegrate homeless men into the work-force and private sector housing without the need to rely on benefits’, and that emphasis is put firmly on the ‘hand-up, rather than hand-out’ model of support.

Not only is this vague in terms of what residents will be expected to do in order to earn their keep at Embassy Village, the type of work offered up by local employers has not been detailed. The entire project is couched in a type of language which makes it comforting to potential neighbours and onlookers, and assuages any squeamishness about the undeserving poor. As a registered charity, Embassy started out by converting tour buses into transportable services for the homeless; they argue that the pandemic provoked the move into static housing.

This isn’t Manchester’s first shipping container development, but it is the first one intended for housing as opposed to leisure. Less than a mile from Embassy Village’s proposed site is Hatch, a complex of independent street food vendors and bars serving from a cluster of containers with—you got it—hatches. It services the busy Oxford Road corridor of apartments and university buildings and is sheltered from weather by the Mancunian Way which roars overhead. When the Hatch development was first proposed, there was concern that the choice of site—a popular one for rough sleepers due to its central but sheltered position—would leave the city’s most vulnerable out in the cold.

More recently, during 2020’s lockdown, Mayfield Depot at the north end of the city centre was transformed into the Covid-friendly Escape to Freight Island. The entertainment complex is positioned as a grown-ups’ playground full of cocktails and cabaret acts, a ‘place where we can escape, just when we need it most’. It happens to be located just across the tracks from Piccadilly Station’s active freight zone, which cuts a mountainous figure of MAERSK-branded yellows and reds as you approach the station by train.

In a thorough piece for ArchDaily, Mark Hogan explained how shipping containers aren’t the catch-all solution developers might want them to be. They are small, smaller still if properly insulated from the inside. They have low ceilings, and require major work to create windows. If you stack them up, you still have to build foundations and structural frameworks.

Of course, there are upsides to shipping container designs: they come pre-constructed, removing the need for lengthy site build times. We have an abundance of them, and the equipment and skills already exist to move them within tight urban environments. However, the green angle isn’t a solid one, as many shipping container projects use brand new rather than recycled units. They are, quite shockingly, smaller than the national space standard for one person, one-bed studios, something which Embassy Village’s website dismisses as acceptable within the ‘context of the offer’.

So, what’s the appeal? Why have these inelegant design solutions been adopted into our urban landscape so wholeheartedly? It’s not surprising that a city with a deep industrial heritage, where some of the most desirable apartments are in disused cotton mills, would have fallen for the industrial cool of a repurposed metal box. Places like Boxpark in London have been at it for years. But the subtext is clear: vulnerable and homeless men are not deserving of the same standards as the rest of us.

The novelty of a tin box wine bar is something, but a place to go to sleep at night is quite different. Ironic cool alone does not make something liveable, or safe, or worthwhile. There’s another, darker, subtext at play here too. When exactly did we become comfortable with putting the poor into structures designed for cargo? Have we already forgotten the deaths of 39 trafficked people in the back of a refrigerated container lorry in Essex a year ago?

That’s not to mention the cultural vernacular of putting these private homes under railway arches, traditionally a go-to place for rough sleepers. At best, it’s clumsy signalling; at worse, it pushes those who have genuinely fallen through the net, those who don’t meet Embassy Village’s strict ‘interview and triage’ process and who are not ‘keen to work’—perhaps due to addiction or mental health issues—even further to the fringes, to more unsafe and insecure situations.

Viewers of Manctopia might be interested, if not at all surprised, to discover that one of the credited funders of Embassy Village is Capital & Centric, the gargantuan property developers whose controversial redevelopment projects are remodelling vast swathes of the city centre. In the programme, Capital & Centric’s co-founder Tim Heatley had a number of staged encounters with the squatters in the building he was gutting and leaders of local homelessness charity LifeShare. His concern towards these issues came across as lip service. You wonder whether the company’s involvement in this project is lazy PR, or even more cynically, a visually appealing un-solution to homelessness which adds perceived value to their other investments.

Gentrification has garbled our perspective on housing. In place of the practical and long-term, we think in the language of regeneration. Wine bars look like design studios look like housing developments. Many will say that developments like Embassy Village are broadly a good thing, that it’s better to have something rather than nothing. That’s exactly the problem.

This is a type of discourse-friendly social action, adapted to notions of the deserving and undeserving poor. For those who grab takeaway coffee from shipping containers, or even take their conference calls or break-out from meetings at work within them, this might seem like nothing new, but the trendification of social services should be treated with profound caution.