Owner-Ship

It may seem there are houses for sale and apartments for rent all over Columbus.

It may seem hard to imagine a shortage of affordable housing.

It may seem that anyone in search of a roof over their head just needs to find the right neighborhood and the right price.

What if your daily income is $30?

What if you just spent a few years behind bars and are looking for a fresh start, but employers interested in someone with a record are few and far between?

What if the shelters you visit are more concerned with housing the chronically homeless or women and children?

What would you do?

It’s suggested that no more than 30 percent of your income should be put towards housing and utilities. The National Low Income Housing Coalition recently stated that the United States needs 7.4 million affordable homes to meet the current demand of those who are currently at or below the poverty level. Instead, according to the report, most of those households currently spend more than half their income on housing. In Central Ohio, there are currently 31 affordable homes for every 100 extremely low-income households.

And yet, by all appearances, the housing market is booming. Apartment buildings seemingly rise up overnight throughout Columbus, but there’s a population for which these indications of a thriving economy provide little hope. The vast majority of these homes are priced well above what is defined as “affordable.” Not to mention, if you’ve recently completed a prison sentence, it’s even less likely that any bank or landlord will approve your application for a loan or lease.

How do you start over, when you can’t even get started?

Dr. Michele Reynolds, CEO and founder of Nothing Into Something Real Estate, Inc. (NISRE), had witnessed this struggle firsthand, when she worked for a Columbus-area halfway house. With limited availability, halfway houses can only provide a roof to so many. Reynolds also knew that shelters in Central Ohio, who operate with limited space and resources, generally focus their efforts on serving the chronically homeless or women and children. “Shelters are not designed to aid in reentry for those with convictions” Reynolds went on to point out that as shelters become clogged, and people are turned away to live on the street, it becomes a community issue. “The lack of affordable or available housing is a public safety issue”, explained Reynolds.

With a background in real estate, and her experiences working at the halfway house, Reynolds saw an opportunity to become what she called a “compassionate landlord”. Leveraging an inheritance, she decided to develop a blighted property into a multi-resident home, with rooms available for $10 a day with no lease agreement required. Success was immediate, and Reynolds quickly grew from two properties to four properties in only two months. NISRE Inc. was formed in 2006 after winning a contract from Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, who had recognized that Reynolds had developed a model that worked, and was desperately needed.

Twelve years later, NISRE manages properties all over the state that provide this type of temporary solution to those transitioning from various forms of incarceration and hardship. Reynolds continues to look for opportunities to fulfill its mission to provide “affordable housing solutions … designed to alleviate poverty and revitalize neighborhoods…” Their latest effort provides its residents a more lasting—even permanent—housing solution and has catapulted NISRE from a regional player to garnering international attention: “cargominiums.”

Creating living space out of shipping containers is a trend that’s caught the imagination of would-be tiny house/HGTV-types who see it simply as a fun challenge. It’s also been touted as a potential green solution to traditionally built homes.

But there’s one benefit of shipping containers that caught the attention of Reynolds. The potential cost and time savings would enable her organization to construct homes that disadvantaged and transitioning populations could afford without any loans or government assistance—with the invaluable added benefit of giving people a chance to invest in their home and the community. Reynolds emphasizes the pride that comes with home ownership, without government assistance, as a critical component in creating safer communities, and she was betting on Cargominiums as part of the solution.

It was uncharted territory. No one had ever constructed a building out of shipping containers before, and certainly not a residential one. Reynolds cited government red tape as the biggest hurdle they faced.“When you’re the first, it’s the most expensive and hardest,” she said.

But at the end of the day, Reynolds and her partners stayed focused on who they were doing this for. And ultimately, NISRE is now a pioneer in the state of Ohio, and arguably in the United States, of construction of this type, at this scale.

“We’ve now written the building code for shipping container construction,” she shared, proudly.

The question of where to place the Cargominium building was answered when Reynolds considered the very neighborhood she’d chosen for the NISRE Inc. home office, which is located off Old Leonard Avenue, just east of downtown Columbus. Referred to as the Devon Triangle, this small area is bound by Fifth Avenue, Old Leonard, Interstate 670 and the Conrail railroad. Zoning is haphazard, with residential, commercial, and manufacturing all intermixed. When Reynolds approached the local community with her hope of constructing the Cargominiums there, “they were appreciative of our interest, because the local construction boom is largely focused on the Short North. They felt forgotten.”

Ultimately, the cost savings allowed Reynolds to approach financing traditionally, without government assistance. The 17,000 square foot, three-story structure was built for 30 percent less than a traditional build, and the bones were complete in only five days. A total of 54 old cargo containers were used, stacked to create 25, two-bedroom units.

“There’s a learning curve,” Reynolds acknowledged, with a laugh. Once the containers were stacked and it was structurally sound, the team focused on making the units livable and appealing. Hardwood floors, plenty of insulation and attention to aesthetic was top of mind for the team, as obviously the shipping containers themselves are strictly functional.

It was years in the making, but the Cargominiums are officially on the market, with an open house targeted for early June. And Reynolds is already onto the next project, having completed a master plan for “Cargominium Village,” which she described as a container district with structures intended for residential, retail and social enterprises.

Fielding inquiries from organizations in Canada, Australia and Nairobi, it’s clear that affordable housing is a challenge felt the world over. To have embarked on this journey, Reynolds expresses nothing but gratitude for those she has partnered with along the way. “I’m so blessed.” When asked what she is most proud of, in taking on this challenge, Dr. Michele Reynolds did not hesitate. “It’s an affordable housing solution. It will transcend me. I’m humbled to be a thought leader of [shipping containers] as a solution. I don’t take that lightly.”

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