Box 500 Apartments — built out of shipping containers stacked six stories high and locked together like LEGO bricks — is set to open in July at 543 S. 500 West in Salt Lake City.
The 83 units were awarded city incentives to be affordable and rents will range from $829 to $1,204 a month, said Amanda Best, a specialist in the housing development program. Tenants have to qualify to rent them by earning 60% or less of the city’s median income, said builder Rod Newman.
Best said maximum income levels depend on household size, but will initially range from from $38,760 to $59,760 annually.
With white walls, light fixtures and appliances, the apartments feel modern, if on the small side. On a recent tour, one kitchen designed in a classic L-shape was windowless and had limited counter space — but a bathroom was arguably more spacious than some in older city housing.
The 48 studio apartments are 320 square feet. There are 18 one-bedroom and 17 two-bedroom units, which are about 640 square feet. One of the units with bedrooms will be used as office space, but all of the other units are currently available. Prospective tenants can get on the application list by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 385-427-6683.
Using shipping containers as the framework reduced costs, Newman said, and shows that the steel boxes can be used to provide more affordable housing as the Salt Lake Valley’s population and housing prices boom.
The industrial exterior maintains the look of the shipping containers, making it stand out from some of the other construction in the area.
“We could have made it look like anything on the exterior, but we left it,” said Newman, who owns the development firm Eco Box Fabricators, as well as Metro National Title. “I think it looks pretty neat.”
Is it safe to live in a shipping container?
If the thought of a home inside stacked shipping containers concerns you, staff at Salt Lake City’s planning division said they’ve worked with Box 500 to ensure the building meets current fire safety standards, particularly reliable exits and a sprinkler system.
The building also can withstand earthquakes and the high-speed winds of the valley, said Orion Goff, deputy director of the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods.
Shipping containers are a sturdy building block, he noted. “Those shipping containers are very, very stout from an engineering standpoint,” Goff said.
Box 500 Apartments is one of the tallest buildings in the world made from shipping containers, Newman said, and city regulators pushed for more design and engineering reports than traditionally constructed buildings may have needed.
Models showed Box 500 can withstand 7.2 magnitude earthquakes and winds of about 140 mph, the builder said.
Building with shipping containers also is more environmentally sustainable because the containers would otherwise be discarded, he pointed out.
The practice, referred to as “cargotecture,” has been used for everything from restaurants to offices to seating at a baseball stadium. A small Salt Lake City firm called Little City offers refurbished shipping containers for office spaces. Utah also has seen containers used in building single-family homes and accessory-dwelling units, known as mother-in-law apartments.
Salt Lake City faces a housing shortage of about 6,000 or more units, said Lani Eggerston-Goff, director of Housing and Neighborhood Development. BOX 500 is just one small piece of the solution.
“It’s a very small percentage, but as our department likes to say, every place that somebody can live matters,” Eggerston-Goff said.
The city is encouraging a variety of new housing developments — both in building materials and unit sizes. With the growing population priced out of their homes and the lack of available land in the city to develop, Eggerston-Goff said, innovative approaches are necessary.
“We need all of those sizes as well as different construction to address the housing crisis,” she said.
With qualifying incomes set at 60% or less of the city’s median income, and with the rents that have been set, Box 500 residents will pay no more than 30% of their income each month, Newman said.
QUALIFYING FOR BOX 500
The annual income caps for tenants to rent apartments at this new tower depend on the number of people in a household.
One person: $38,760.
Two people, whether they are two adults or a single parent: $ 44,280.
Three people: $49,800.
Four people: $55,320.
Five people: $59,760.
Source: Salt Lake City
Families are considered “cost-burdened” if they spend more than 30% of their incomes on housing, according to the definition used by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.
To incentivize construction of lower-cost housing, and to make projects financially feasible for developers, governments can award tax credits and fee waivers. For Box 500, the city waived $299,737 in fees for Newman, since he committed to keeping rents lower.
Those “impact” fees would otherwise have been charged to help cover the city’s costs created by the new development, from traffic and police response to more use of city parks, for example.
Federal tax credits are also available to developers, though the process of applying for those can be lengthy.
Newman said he was inspired to start Eco Box Fabricators and build affordable housing after seeing a much smaller shipping container project in California. There, the boxes were used to build about a dozen apartments for veterans who were homeless.
Planning for the Salt Lake City project started in 2017, but Newman said the lengthy engineering work set up Eco Box for a faster process for future projects.
“Had we not hit so many problems in the permitting process and then the engineering, we could have gone a lot quicker and not have so much cost overruns,” Newman said. “Knowing now what we know, we can do a lot better next time.”
Eco Box doesn’t have immediate plans for another apartment building, but it is filling orders for accessory homes and offices, Newman said.
Corrections: 10:50 a.m. June 4: This story has been updated to correct the phone number to apply to live in Box 500. | 1:30 p.m. June 2: The story has been updated to correct the numbers of each type of units available.
This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.