Alachua County officials are developing new financial details for commissioners to determine if a housing project made from recycled shipping crates at Grace Marketplace is feasible.
The company Welding to Recycle is creating these homes. Marketing director Vanessa Alfonzo said that the program will be instrumental in uplifting Alachua County’s homeless population.
“We wanted to present this project as a way of dignifying the life of these people, not just putting camps or almost a tent,” Alfonzo said.
The homes were initially proposed as transitional housing. But after discussion during a recent special county commission meeting, a decision was made to make the homes permanent for many of the future residents. As permanent residents, they will take on the responsibilities that tenants in a conventional apartment have, like paying rent.
The housing units will be crafted from recycled shipping containers. The containers are used as the structural element of the shelter, and interior elements like walls, floors, roofs and beds are added afterwards.
The proposal was presented by Mary Alford, the vice chair of Alachua County’s Board of Commissioners.
“I have a son that has been homeless because he has some mental health issues,” Alford said. “In every face, I see somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter; to me, this is a real issue of my heart.”
Alford said that it is not just about getting people off the streets, it’s about taking care of people.
“If we were to fund this we would be able to have houses on the ground in six to nine months,” Alford said. “And that is pretty fast.”
The executive director of Grace Marketplace, Jon DeCarmine, said this is a step-up from the transitional to permanent housing that Grace currently provides. This not only changes the title of the housing units from being transitional to being permanent, it also changes the responsibilities of those who may live there.
“To me, the big difference is a person who’s moved into a permanent unit and signed a lease takes on the responsibilities of being a tenant in that unit,” DeCarmine said.
DeCarmine explained that transitional housing programs are still homeless programs and the solution is rooted in permanent housing.
Kali Blount is a member of the Alachua County Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and was previously a member of Gainesville’s Housing Authority Board. He said for some individuals, transitional housing is a viable option, and transitional housing shouldn’t be eliminated.
“I also want to point out that transitional [housing] can be a gateway to permanent [housing] for some people with serious personal issues that need more case management,” Blount said.
Blount explained in some extreme situations, for example, people with a very serious medical prognosis that is six months or less should be allowed to use transitional housing because it may serve them for the rest of their lives.
Residents in these new permanent units will be responsible for paying monthly rent as well as taking good care of their units. Residents who do not uphold these responsibilities will not be eligible to stay in the proposed units.
Looking forward, commissioners approved a proposal to continue research by directing staff “to bring back more information about best practices, costs and analysis of the project… after the first of the year,” said Anna Prizzia, the chair of the county commission.
After staff comes back with this information, the commission will decide if the proposal seems financially feasible.
Prizzia said the proposed housing units are more than shelters but less than houses.
“I’m worried about this concept of, like, ‘less than a house is a house’ and we’re okay with that,” Prizzia said. “That’s a little hard for me.”
Specifically, Prizzia noted that the bathrooms would be in a separate bunkhouse, and the kitchen would be communal.
Angie Sendon is 42 years old and has been homeless for 29 years. She said that transportation to and from Grace is an issue for her.
“It’s too far for the homeless that are in downtown to travel over there,” Sendon said. “It’s a struggle.”
Many homeless people in downtown Gainesville support each other while battling the elements. Many of them prefer to stay in the relative safety of that area with their tight-knit community.
Alford’s presentation covered the estimated finances for the project. She said Grace can make this a lot cheaper than the county can.
The total initial cost per resident is estimated to be $83,000 per resident, but that cost will fall to $52,000 per resident if they add another nine bedrooms in phase two of the proposal. Adding another 18 bedrooms and four bathrooms could lower the cost to $30,000 per resident.
Jon DeCarmine said rent could be as low as $300 per month.
Future phases of the project could include community spaces and kitchens.
Amy Lansing, 42, has been homeless for two months. She said she is currently receiving disability checks which could cover the current proposed rent.
“I have a child that needs more money than I do, and saving a little money for myself would be saving a little money for him,” Lansing said.
A prototype for the economy-style shipping container homes has not been constructed yet. Welding To Recycle is still working out whether they plan to include four, three or two units per container.
Alfonzo said that they cannot construct a prototype until funding has been granted to them, as they are a small business.
No deadline was set for staff to return with the information regarding best practices, costs and analysis of the project. However, work is not expected to start until after Dec. 1.
Tommy Lee Young, a Gainesville resident, has been homeless for one year and said he’s happy with the proposed rent of $300 per month.
“That sounds like a deal to me if you can make it happen,” Young said. “It’s cold out here.”