Inside England's New Shipping-Container Ghetto

What looks like a novel approach to fighting homelessness is actually a development scheme.

James Rippingale

James Rippingale

Richardson's Yard, the shipping-container housing project in Brighton, England

So how did artist Charlie Devus come to call a 40-foot metal shipping container home? “In this place, we’re all God’s polyps. All of us flow according to the tides,” he explained as he gave me a guided tour of his new abode.

The process began when Brighton Housing Trust, a local housing charity, found him an apartment straight out of a Dickens novel. “I couldn’t stay there. There was this giant hole just pouring water down through the ceiling. It was just insane—and I had to leave, quickly,” he shudders. A few months later, while construction was still being carried out on a new flagship housing project, Brighton Housing Trust suggested he move in and try it out.

His new place is inside a five-story compound made up of 36 shipping containers. Richardson’s Yard, as it's known, was completed in December and now sits on the site of a former pub and a scrap-metal yard near Brighton’s London Road area. There's no question the area needs more housing: Along with its stony beach and gigantic seagulls, Brighton is home to one of the biggest homeless populations on England's South Coast. Shortly before the project’s completion, Brighton Housing Trust’s chief, Andy Winter, remarked that “there is an acute shortage of affordable accommodation in Brighton and Hove, and—in a landlord's market—particularly for those with a history of homelessness.”

Brighton’s Homelessness figures tend to jump about, with Brighton Housing Trust estimating the current number of rough sleepers at around 70 to 100. But local charity Antifreeze told me that its drop-in center had worked with 788 rough sleepers in 2013 and 776 already in 2014—no small number when you consider that you can walk across Brighton in 25 minutes.

Brighton Housing Trust has been swamped with media requests and is denying all journalists access to Richardson's Yard until June, when it will likely receive a ton of media coverage. But thanks to Devus, I was able to sneak in and spend the night down there, with the estate's residents.

Charlie Devus at home

I walked into Devus's container expecting the worst—something thin, bare, and sinister, like the containment cell before a water-boarding scene in a Jason Statham movie. At first glance, the place felt spacious enough. The magnolia walls and office-blue carpets were predictably bland but left some potential for personality. A giant window at each end provided a broad view over the rooftops out into the distance, and a small kitchen and a shower-only bathroom reminded me of amenities available in a budget motel room.

The containers were purchased at a discounted rate from Dutch company Tempohousing, where they were originally used as housing in Amsterdam until the project’s funding fell through. Now the containers and the land are being leased to Brighton Housing Trust for five years by a company called QED Estates.

“It’s a bold scheme, and I applaud it,” Devus said. “But it’s severely flawed. These ceramic heaters are useless. The place got so fantastically cold this winter I couldn’t stay here. It was just too cold to sleep. Plus, the whole place had started to rust within two weeks of moving in. Look at the wood paneling outside—it’s all rotten. It should’ve been condemned. I get the impression that while QED have done their best to look eco-friendly, what they’ve actually done is just recycle otherwise unsalable products."

(A QED spokesperson admitted to me that "there’s a couple of places we can’t physically access where the wooden fillets have rotted slightly" while insisting that the containers are designed to rust and that repairs are going to be carried out "imminently.")

More important than the physical structure is how the residents interact with one another, and that's one of Devus's biggest concerns.

“My fear is that this place is a [sensationalist] Daily Mail article waiting to happen," Devus said. "There are a lot of drugs here. There’s been violence. And there’s been no real attempt by Brighton Housing Trust to address it.

“What you’ve got here is a ready-made ghetto," he continued. "And if it’s not policed, it has the potential to explode. Many people have complained about the drugs and the need for security. One of the major objectives was to vet out drugs and dealers at the very start, but that hasn’t happened at all. My neighbors are both working. And the danger is that they’re at risk of getting priced out by crackheads with subsidized rent."

Richardson's Yard

“Priced out?” I asked, puzzled. “I thought this was a council initiative to help rough sleepers? I didn’t realize working people lived here too.”

“It costs £650 ($1,100) a month to live here. My rent's subsidized, but for a lot of people, it’s no different from renting privately,” he replied. Now, £650 month is fairly expensive for Brighton and even more expensive to a homeless person. It was a surprise to me that people here were paying rent at all to live in a glorified sardine can with no on-site security, let alone a significant amount.

Following our conversation, I wandered downstairs to talk to a few more people about living here, stopping a middle-aged woman on the stairs, who asked not to be named.

“They told us the rent was only going to be £400 ($675) a month," she told me. "A lot of people got upset about that." According to the resident, the price isn't the only problem. "We’re ignored on some issues—like the portable heaters we were promised. It’s costing people £5 ($8.50) a day to heat the place, and they’re doing nothing to help. The lack of security’s pretty scary, and I know people who’re genuinely afraid to come out of their houses.

“I’ve been on the council housing list for 15 years, and my application was repeatedly mislaid or ignored," she continued. "I tell you, the more you understand the system, the more disgusted you get with it.”

After knocking on several doors, I found another resident who was willing to chat to me, a man named Merzak Maarli, 54, who lives on the third floor.

“It’s not bad, I guess, but someone’s making an absolute fortune here,” he shrugged. “To be honest, they gave us the wrong picture before we moved in. They really upsold it. It hadn’t been built yet, so all we saw were the architect’s designs. It looked lovely, but it was a completely different picture when we moved in.”

Maarli is bright-eyed, personable, and well dressed. When I asked what brought him here, his story sounded strikingly similar to others I’ve heard.

“I was referred here by Elm Grove mental health clinic. I was technically homeless—you know, staying at people’s houses and stuff. At the moment I work one day a week to help get me back into employment.”

Devus in his container home.

Interestingly, Devus, Maarli, and another of the block’s residents I spoke to, Kweku, were offered a container at Richardson’s Yard after being “technically homeless,” the type of homelessness that comes with an abrubt shift of circumstances. People dealing with that situation still have access to a warm shower and clean clothes and are firmly entrenched in the governmental paper trail of housing benefits and back-to-work schemes; it's a precarious way to live, but it's not close to shivering in a rain-soaked sleeping bag beneath the awning of a convenience store.

What I came to learn is that there is a world of difference between someone who is homeless and a rough sleeper, and this housing project doesn't focus on the latter. When I quizzed several homeless men selling copies of the Big Issue around town about it, they all seemed clueless as to how to get a container at Richardson’s Yard. I doubt they'd be able to afford it, in any case.

As Maarli and I chatted, something caught my eye. It was a letter from QED notifying residents of a new development due to begin on the little scrap of land next to the yard—an office space designed to cater to Brighton’s “young creative industries.”

“We were under the impression that it was going to be made into a garden,” Maarli told me, seeming a little confused.

One of the yard's 40-foot containers

Shortly before I came to Richardson’s Yard, I came across a Brighton and Hove Council document titled The London Road Central Masterplan that proposed a series of planning objectives. On page 14, it lays bare the site's true destiny: The aim is to harness it for “employment uses including business floorspace and affordable workspace for creative industries. Residential may be allowed as enabling development.” In other words, Richardson's Yard might not be so much an attempt to solve Brighton's homelessness problem and more of a lucrative stop-gap while the regeneration industry pauses for breath.

In fact, on the Brighton Housing Trust website Chris Gilbert, the director of QED, almost says as much: “If successful, this formula could be a very effective way of helping to alleviate the housing crisis in Brighton, by providing ‘transition housing’ on a site that would otherwise be underutilized until a major development came forward." Gilbert admits that this is "not likely to happen for a number of years, given the current economic climate" and so it's easy to see why, for now, this project might be a good way for the site to keep some money coming in, while providing everyone involved with some decent PR.

The beauty of shipping containers is that, when needed, they can be moved quickly. According to a recent article in Inside Housing, QED plans to move the containers after Brighton Housing Trust's five-year lease expires, potentially waking up the area as prime real estate for office blocks and expensive flats. QED has already sunk £900,000 ($1.5 million) into the scheme, suggesting there’s a plan way beyond giving homes to the “basically homeless” at £650 a month for five years. That said, adding a few numbers together, I worked out that QED could have netted some £1,404,000 ($2.37 million) in rent out of the yard’s 36 shipping containers by the time the lease is up. Which isn't bad at all.

The day after my stay in the containers, I called Andy Winter, the CEO of Brighton Housing Trust, and put some of the criticisms I had heard about Richardson's Yard to him. He told me that he was "fully aware" that incidents of antisocial behavior had occurred, adding, "It’s generally visitors of two residents who’ve been responsible... We’re also fully aware of the tenants whom they are visiting, and we have taken robust management action against them.“

He added that they'd also been "consulting residents on getting a lock for the front gate" and assured me that the tenants had been thoroughly vetted and most were already known to Brighton Housing Trust. "What we couldn’t vet is friends coming onto the property," he said. "On the whole, we’ve known of persons coming onto the property and trying to sell drugs. I take a hard line on drug dealing, and my first port of call when dealing with drugs is always to involve the police."

Richardson’s Yard may appear to be a creative solution to a very real and growing problem. But the impression I got is that it's less about rehabilitating long-term rough sleepers and more a get-rich-quick scheme that provides a beachhead for urban redevelopment—a formula for wealth extraction in the form of 36 metal cans with a five-year shelf life, unjustifiable rents, high utility bills, and security problems.

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