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St. Petersburg abandons project of building homes from shipping containers

ST. PETERSBURG — Five years ago, the city joined a nonprofit housing agency in a project to turn recycled shipping containers into a pair of hurricane-resistant homes in Bartlett Park. The hope was to set the stage for a wave of affordable, green housing.

But today the experimental project, once touted by home improvement guru Bob Vila in a five-part television series, is more notable for an empty lot on 15th Avenue S that is appraised at $10,000 despite the city's $175,000 investment.

Next door to the weed-strewn lot stands the only home the project produced. The city put another $50,000 in construction costs toward the four-bedroom, two-bath home at 874 15th Ave. S. It belongs to Roslynn Kearney, 34, a single mother who says she is happy there.

In December 2006, Kearney bought the home from the St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services for $170,000, not a small sum in an area where the average home sale is $97,000, according to the property appraiser's office. Today, the city says it is building energy-efficient homes of comparable size for $106,000.

In May, the city quietly razed a partly built container home on the now-barren lot at 868 15th Ave. S. The city came to own the lot in August 2008 after foreclosing on Neighborhood Housing Services, which stopped paying its bills. After spending another $5,000 studying how it could finish the second house, the city decided to cut its losses.

Neighbors called the half-completed shell an eyesore and a breeding ground for mosquitoes. A demolition crew, which cost the city another $5,000, arrived in May.

"Financially, it just never made sense," said Thomas de Yampert, the city's manager of housing and community development. "But we were trying to do something to support one of our nonprofit agencies, and to see what we could get done."

The project was particularly painful for NHS, whose budget comes mostly from public funding and has been running in the red since 2004, according to federal tax filings.

"This was a costly and highly disappointing outcome that I deeply regret, both personally and professionally," said Askia Muhammad Aquil, who was president of NHS for more than a decade and was let go by the board of directors in January 2008. He is now director of the nonprofit Community Housing Solutions.

The plan to build both houses began in early 2005, at a time when a series of hurricanes had battered the state, the building boom was in full swing and the city was enthusiastic about exploring green housing.

NHS was approached by a South Carolina company that wanted to develop homes out of "intermodal steel building units" — recycled shipping containers. NHS agreed, and formed a partnership with Tampa Armature Works, a company that was converting containers for homes, and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes.

The city loaned NHS $100,000 to buy several containers from Tampa Armature Works, de Yampert said. The Home Depot Foundation donated $185,000 to the project, said spokeswoman Catherine Woodling.

Vila arrived with a film crew. He praised the old trees and housing stock of Bartlett Park, and the "marvelous story" of recycling a remnant of the dying American export industry to build affordable, green homes.

The home Kearney purchased was completed in September 2006. Its construction was beset with delays as builders had to pause often to accommodate the film crew and construction costs soared, said Deborah Scanlan, president and CEO of NHS, who was then chief financial officer.

Kearney closed on the house with $85,000 in interest-free loans from the city, state and NHS and help from a foundation set up by former NFL football star Warrick Dunn.

But as Kearney was moving in, construction next door was slowing down.

Aquil said that as he left in January 2007, Tampa Armature Works was pulling away from its involvement in the project. No one from the company could be reached for comment. But Scanlan said NHS still owes Tampa Armature Works $100,000 for the containers.

Aquil likened the project to "building a boat as you're going down a river in the rapids." City Council member Karl Nurse, who was finance committee chairman of NHS at the time, called the project a "train wreck."

All involved cited the slumping economy and difficulty working with an obscure technology as difficulties in getting the second home built. So does David Cross, a former manager at Tampa Armature Works who left the project in 2007. Cross now works with SG Blocks, a New York company that has built container homes in Jacksonville and Fort Bragg, N.C.

"I would say that the St. Pete project contributed as a catalyst for showing what could be done," said Cross.

Aquil agreed. "It was successful in the sense that it … helped advance this technology," he said.

But city officials said they are done with container housing.

"We are not even looking at container homes at this point," de Yampert said.

Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or lperez@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg abandons project of building homes from shipping containers 08/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 17, 2010 4:49pm]
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