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Non-profit turning shipping containers into homes for homeless San Diegans

An affordable housing project under construction in San Diego’s El Cerrito neighborhood is getting ready to become homes for people who are currently homeless. With the number of unsheltered residents increasing in the county, the non-profit developer, People Assisting The Homeless (PATH) wants to finish the project quickly so they are using prefabricated units. In this case, shipping containers that used to move products across the ocean are being converted into studio and one bedroom apartments. The construction style is also called modular housing.

“Most of the folks moving in are what’s considered low-income so they’re likely not going to pay more than $300 — if that,” said PATH CEO Jennifer Hark Dietz. “It really is based on their income level.”

Hark Dietz said housing vouchers will pay for majority of the PATH Villas El Cerrito residents' rent, but tenants will be responsible for a portion equivalent to 30% of their income.


Phase one of the project, which will include 41 units, is expected to open by the end of the year. Phase two includes an additional 131 units but there is not a timeline for that part of the project. Those units will also be for formerly unhoused residents plus low-income San Diegans.

It takes three shipping containers to create a one-bedroom apartment and two for a studio. Hark Dietz said prefabricated housing is not cheaper than traditional builds, but it has one major bonus.

“Where the money might be the same — what you really gain is that time — which saves lives,” Hark Dietz said. “We need to get more units online as fast as possible.. We wanted to do modular on this site to build as quickly as possible. We know in San Diego there is not enough affordable housing."

Phase one of the project is estimated to cost about $23 million and phase two around $60 million. The project got funding from a variety of sources including the state, city and county.

PATH officials said a traditional build could take anywhere from 18-24 months where using prefabricated units takes about half that time. PATH officials said it is running about six months behind schedule due to supply chain issues, but all the shipping containers for the first phase will be in place by the end of July.


The complex is being built on top of what will become a Family Health Centers of San Diego clinic, so access to medical and behavioral health care will be nearby. Formerly unhoused residents will also have onsite-access to services including case management, living skills and education and employment services. Hark Dietz said PATH will use the city's coordinated entry system to identify unsheltered residents who could live here, she said people could be staying in a shelter or living on the streets before getting a new home.

“We need housing — period,” said San Diego City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera who toured the construction site Monday.

Elo-Rivera said some people living nearby were concerned about formerly homeless residents moving into the neighborhood. He hopes that is changing, especially with all the on-site services that will be provided.

“This is how we solve homelessness — short and to the point — I want to make that clear,” he said. “Housing solves homelessness — this is housing. If folks are concerned about the people on the streets they should be supportive of projects like this.”

Elo-Rivera said expanding housing using prefabricated units could become cheaper once more developments are underway. He said projects like this need to happen on a much larger scale.

“I think it’s an innovative model and given the housing crisis in California and San Diego — we need to be looking at every possible option for how we can create more housing faster,” Elo-Rivera said.

The containers are stacked on top of each other and inside them nearly everything is already done.

“The flooring system is in it, the walls, the plumbing, the electrical — the finished plumbing the finished electrical, cabinetry, toilets,” said Rich Rozycki, CEO of CRATE Modular which builds the prefabricated units. “Basically when the units are delivered to site they’re about 95%-99% complete.”

People might not see more affordable housing constructed with shipping containers, at least not from CRATE Modular. The company is moving toward building its own prefabricated units because of a lack of containers.

“The story of up-cycling containers — basically taking what is sitting around the port and being able to recycle that and put it to a higher and better use — that doesn’t exist like it used to,” Rozycki said.

Rozycki said developers typically want prefabricated units because it gets projects finished quicker. PATH has a similar prefabricated complex in Los Angeles. The non-profit does not have plans for others in San Diego currently, but that could change.

"We're definitely open to looking and looking for more land opportunities," Hark Dietz said.

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