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France to tackle student housing crisis with… shipping containers

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2010-08-30

Taking inspiration from their Dutch neighbours, French officials have inaugurated 99 refashioned shipping containers in a novel approach to solving the chronic lack of housing for university students.

The French government’s fight against its chronic lack of student housing took an unusual turn in the north-western city of Le Havre Monday. In an event presided by the junior minister of higher education Valérie Pécresse, 99 students were handed keys to their brand new… shipping containers.
The massive sheet metal boxes, which have been transformed into no-frills, 25 metre-square student apartments, are efficiently stacked on top of each other and hailed as an affordable housing solution for budget-strained university students.
This novel student housing approach is actually an idea borrowed from the Dutch. However, their long-term sustainability and economic soundness have already called into question in the Netherlands.
Made in Ketwoonen
The containers first sprouted up in the outlying Ketwoonen neighbourhood of Amsterdam. Here, in 2005, the municipality decided to enlist the help of the Tempohousing Company to come up with a new kind of student housing.
Ketwoonen, whose only previous claim to fame was a prison facility, became instantly renowned after it unveiled 1,000 of these refashioned cargo containers in 2006. “They became very popular with students… even if it takes some getting used to,” says Tempohousing president Quinten of Gooijer.
According to DeKey, Amsterdam’s main rental agency among students, there is now a two-year waiting list for an opening in Ketwoonen’s container city, which also features cafes, a supermarket and sports fields.
Dave Van Der Pol, a container pioneer, remembers his four years in Ketwoonen fondly. “It's perfect for a young student who has just left their parents’ nest,” he says. “You experience a true campus atmosphere.”
Home economics
The financial advantages for living in a metal box are obvious. According to Van Der Pol, his monthly rent was 430 euros, but he got back 130 euros as a subsidy from the city. The 300 euro rent for his 27 metre-square container, which included a balcony and unlimited Internet, compared well to the average rent for a similar-sized flat elsewhere in Amsterdam.
Today Amsterdam hosts around 2,800 container apartments, which house up to 15 percent of the city’s entire student population, according to DeKey student housing manager Wim De Waard.

But no new container projects have been launched in the past two years.
Apparently, the container flats are not economically viable. De Waard says that at 430 month, it takes an average of 10 years to recover the initial investment of transforming the container into a livable apartment. However, Dutch authorities have ruled that the containers no longer comply with safety standards after just five years.
Tempohousing has been allowed to continue operating the containers in Ketwoonen until 2015, but have been ordered to renovate them in order to comply with the safety standards.
The next generation of Dutch container apartments is being built to withstand a minimum of 15 years of use. There are currently 1,800 containers under construction, but none are yet for sale.
Despite the lessons learned from the Dutch experiment, French authorities have elected for the original less-sustainable Dutch design. Therefore, in five years France could once again face a large bill to address its chronic student housing shortage.

Date created : 2010-08-30