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Making waves: Barcelona turns shipping containers into affordable homes

by Sophie Davies | @sophiedaviesed | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 23 March 2020 06:00 GMT

Construction workers put the final touches to a new emergency housing block built out of old shipping containers in Barcelona, Spain, on October 25, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sophie Davies

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Inspired by London, Amsterdam and Vancouver, Barcelona turns shipping containers into flats to help people stay in their communities

By Sophie Davies

BARCELONA, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Down a cobblestone street a few metres from Las Ramblas boulevard, a vivid, contemporary-style building sits incongruously among the ancient churches and medieval squares that typify Barcelona's old quarter.

The minimalist structure is home to a dozen new flats built out of disused shipping containers, the latest innovation in Barcelona's search for a solution to its ongoing social housing crisis.

Rising rents coupled with a shortage of public housing that stems from policies geared toward home ownership are putting pressure on Spain's most vulnerable citizens, housing experts say.

"In Spain, you still have these ideological debates over whether it's ownership or rental we should (focus on) – you need to tackle both," said Sorcha Edwards, secretary general of Housing Europe, a network of affordable-housing groups.

"Even when supply goes up the supply is not matching people's incomes. So local economies suffer, families suffer," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"In the most extreme cases, you have evictions and homelessness."

By turning to shipping containers, Spain's second-largest city has taken inspiration from similar projects in places like London, Amsterdam and Vancouver, where recycled maritime containers have been used for emergency or social housing.

Cheaper and easier to build than traditional buildings, shipping container homes could help vulnerable people stay in their communities, said Oscar Martinez Rivera, a social affairs professor at Barcelona's Ramon Llull University.

"It is essential (for neighbourhoods) to maintain local residents because otherwise there will come a time when there will only be people passing through and almost no one living there," said Rivera.

"This impacts directly on the social fabric that has often sustained (people in) situations of vulnerability," he stressed.

City Hall spokeswoman Rosa Diaz said that the shipping container project is one of several new ways the administration is trying to increase its public housing supply.

"We are trying new types of projects that are sustainable ... the need for mostly affordable housing is growing because prices have skyrocketed in recent years," she said in a phone interview.

Under the city's current housing mandate, which began last year, there are 65 social housing projects planned, providing nearly 4,500 homes, she noted.

Of those, three buildings - including the shipping container flats - are complete or nearly complete, and a further 13 are currently under construction, she said.

The balcony view from a new emergency housing block built out of former shipping containers in central Barcelona, Spain, on December 15, 2019. Handout picture courtesy of: Oihana Garcia, Straddle3


Social rented housing in Spain represents about 2% of the total housing stock, compared to the European Union average of nearly 12%, according to official statistics.

European Investment Bank (EIB) vice president Emma Navarro said the bank has approved financing worth 400 million euros ($433 million) over the last three years to develop social housing projects in Spanish cities like Barcelona and Madrid.

"Promoting affordable housing is one the priorities of the EU bank, both in Spain and in the rest of Europe ... to promote inclusive growth and improve people's quality of life," she said in emailed comments.

She did not confirm how much of the funding had been used so far.

Traditionally, Spain's social housing policy has been based on so-called "vivienda de proteccion publica", or publicly protected housing.

Under this model, which housing experts say is a peculiarity among European social housing models, tenants become owners of their property after a fixed period, explained Jaime Palomera, a housing researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

After that period, normally between 10 years and 30 years, the occupiers can sell the property at market prices, meaning often only higher earners can afford them, he added.

Some provinces have moved away from the model over the last decade or so, as critics say it is partly to blame for the dearth of social housing in the country today.

"It has not only contributed to the lack of social housing but has also raised prices for everyone," Palomera said.

A woman looks out of a new emergency housing block built out of former shipping containers in Barcelona, Spain, on December 15, 2019. Handout picture courtesy of: Oihana Garcia, Straddle3


Construction on the shipping containers flats – the first of their kind in Spain – was completed in December and the first residents moved in a month later.

"I found some very well appointed, cosy and bright spaces," said Rivera at Ramon Llull University, who recently had a look inside a few of the finished apartments.

"In fact, if they didn't tell you the flats are built from containers you wouldn't know."

State housing organisation Aprop (an acronym which stands for "local provisional housing" in Catalan) built the one- and two-bedroom flats with three Spanish architectural practices, Straddle3, Eulia and Yaiza Terre.

The flats can be built and taken down quickly and can be adapted to any part of the city, explained David Juarez, a Straddle3 co-founder, over the din of drilling, as the final doors and windows were being fitted into one of the new flats.

The shipping container flats also consume four to six times less energy than conventional buildings, according to Barcelona's City Hall.

But some housing experts say the container flats need to be built on a larger scale to make any real difference.

"This is a prototype (in Barcelona) and therefore what they need to do now is make them on a bigger scale ... not just for people in vulnerable situations but also for young people and students," said Palomera, the housing researcher.


To bump up its social housing, Barcelona is also looking to develop legislation that gives the local government first refusal when any building or land goes up for sale, said Edwards of Housing Europe.

The property could then potentially be managed through a model based on community land trusts, non-profits that buy homes, fix them up and then sell them at a reduced price while keeping the titles to the underlying land.

In addition, the city is working on a new legal framework that would incentivise non-profit affordable housing providers to operate there, she noted.

Although the container flats are only a "tiny part" of Barcelona's strategy, Edwards said they represent "a welcome addition to the mosaic of policy measures that can be taken" to help solve the housing crisis.

Still, she added, the city has a long way to go.

"Barcelona is really trailblazing but from a very difficult starting point ... even with all the work they are doing they may not have an impact for some years," she lamented. ($1 = 0.9231 euros) (Reporting by Sophie Davies; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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