Fort Wayne’s first Innovative Housing Showcase seeks to fill gaps in the local market

by | May 9, 2024 | Affordable Housing, Community Engagement, Fort Wayne Media Collaborative, Renters, Uncategorized | 0 comments

As an architect from Detroit, Rena Bradley noticed Fort Wayne was lacking diverse housing styles when she moved here in 2015. 

At the time, she was working for Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries on the city’s Southeast side, addressing challenges in the neighborhood, like a housing shortage and a surplus of smaller, empty lots.

Bradley thought that if she could bring a concept, like shipping container homes, to Fort Wayne it could benefit families and the city alike, giving residents an attainable path to homeownership and reactivating vacant lots too small for traditional housing. As an added bonus: It would give her more interesting homes to choose from, too.

“I wanted to bring the type of housing to our community that I myself wanted to live in,” Bradley says. “Something more modern, more stylish.”

This multi-functional role innovative housing plays in cities is at the heart of Fort Wayne’s first Innovative Housing Showcase this spring, which seeks to introduce four new construction styles into the local marketing:

  1. a shipping container home by Three Squared Inc.
  2. a digitally fabricated house by HOUM.
  3. a New Energy Homes build that promises to “eliminate at least half of your energy costs.”
  4. a Volumod modular home that reduces build times by 30-50 percent.

The project is the brainchild of former Auburn-area resident JT King, who teamed up with Bradley – now a Neighborhood Planner for the City of Fort Wayne – to kickstart the Housing Showcase, alongside Kelly Lundberg and John Steinburg at the city.

After working for Granite Ridge Builders for seven years and later helping build a food hall out of shipping containers in Uganda, King recently returned to Northeast Indiana and founded his company, Royal Developments LLC, as a way to bring more innovative, adaptable and accessible housing types here. When he realized an architecture firm nationally recognized for shipping container homes, Three Squared Inc., was only about two hours away from Fort Wayne in Detroit, he worked with Bradley at the City of Fort Wayne to coordinate a visit. 

This trip for about 25 city leaders resulted in the Innovative Housing Showcase, which features two Detroit-based housing models, Three Squared Inc. and HOUM, as well as other models from Nappanee, Ind., (New Energy Homes) and Indianapolis (Volumod).

“We’re bringing these other minds to Fort Wayne to show: There is so much going on in other places; Let’s consider these options for us,” King says. “We’re really pushing into: What are we doing to solve the issue with infill lots and create attainable housing here?” 

Perhaps most notably: since the project team received a zoning code variance to build Fort Wayne’s first shipping container home, it could result in the code being updated for others to follow suit.

That’s something that got Hartwood Construction Co-owner Josh Yoder interested in the Innovative Housing Showcase. His team’s focus is multifamily housing with unique builds, and he says that, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, shipping container homes are not necessarily “tiny homes” or even single-family homes, exclusively. They can be conjoined or combined with other materials to do larger builds or multifamily. 

“We know there’s a big need for affordable housing,” he says. “We think there’s opportunity with container homes, specifically, to build apartments pretty easily and create townhomes, duplexes or triplexes.”

While the four houses in the Showcase will be single family residences (about 1,200-1,400 sq. ft.) with three or four bedrooms each, King says Royal Developments will be using the showcase to kickstart the conversation with many General Contractors in the area, like Hartwood’s team, about ways to adapt these construction types to address the city’s housing shortage Downtown or on the Southeast side.

A lack of safe, affordable and/or accessible housing is not unique to Fort Wayne. Nationally, the U.S. is short millions of housing units, prompting more than 100 municipal jurisdictions to undertake what NPR calls “zoning reform” to make it easier and less expensive to build more styles of housing – from Milwaukee and New York City to Columbus, Ohio, and South Bend, Indiana

“Zoning reform looks different in every city, according to each one’s own history and housing stock,” NPR reports. “But the messaging that city leaders use to build support for these changes often has certain terms in common: ‘gentle density,’ building ‘missing middle’ housing and creating more choices.”

In Fort Wayne, one way city leaders are exploring housing solutions and zoning reforms is through the showcase. As Deputy Director of Housing and Neighborhood Services for the city, Kelly Lundberg says throughout the process of the buildout this summer, her team will be looking into what incentives and programs they can put in place, as the city, so that if residents or builders want to utilize these housing styles to address housing shortages, the city is prepared to help.

“We’re working on ways to help residents or builders develop lots that don’t fit traditional houses and to build in neighborhoods that haven’t experienced new housing construction for years,” Lundberg says. “Do we need appraisal gap assistance? Do we need down-payment assistance? Do infill lots have soil suitability issues that need to be addressed? We feel like there are potential barriers to developing these lots. That’s why we want to go through the whole process and feel the pain points for ourselves, so we can start working to address them.”

While many cities are facing a housing shortage, Fort Wayne’s population growth is more than double that of the state at 1.1% (compared to 0.5%). “It’s the second-fastest growing metropolitan area in the Great Lakes Region, and the county’s population is expected to increase by almost 50,000 people by 2040,” The Journal Gazette reports.

The need for affordable units alone – for people earning less than $25,000 a year – is estimated at 7,081 units, according to Allen County’s All In Allen Comprehensive Plan

Testing ways to fill these gaps – and more — is the ultimate purpose behind the Innovative Housing Showcase, King says, and rather than reinvent the wheel, he hopes Fort Wayne can build on the wealth of knowledge being developed other places.

“It’s about education and collaboration,” he says. 

As such, representatives from Three Squared Inc., HOUM, New Energy Homes and Volumod were on-site March 13, when Royal Developments LLC and the City of Fort Wayne broke ground on the Housing Showcase in two vacant lots just east of Downtown on Wayne and Berry streets.

While all four showcase houses will be energy-efficient, sustainable and adaptable for cost-effectiveness, perhaps the most “innovative” is HOUM, which will build the second-ever HOUM in Fort Wayne. The first is being built in Detroit for its Co-Founder Breck Crandell, who says HOUM essentially makes an architect’s eye more accessible to the masses via custom software he helped create. 

“It’s kind of like artificial intelligence (that designs unique homes) based on the information and context we give it — like where the sun is, where you access the building and what’s next to it,” he says. 

In this way, HOUM allows builders to shave time and money off builds, utilizing the same core technologies to create layouts that look, feel and function unique to their specific lots.

“Give me 30 lots, and I’ll give you 30 unique HOUMs,” Crandell says.

He came up with the concept as part of his thesis in college at Lawrence Tech University, where he studied under his now Co-Founder Scott Shall in the College of Architecture and Design. When he graduated, the two launched HOUM together.

While Crandell has long been interested in affordable housing and even helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity after Hurricane Katrina, he notes that HOUMs are not necessarily capital-A affordable (voucher-required) housing or cheaply made. Instead, the focus is on long-term affordability, which is more sustainable by design, like investing in quality materials that don’t break down and ultimately reduce costs for homeowners, such as heating and cooling. 

“Everybody wants to know how much it costs to build, but I am way more interested in how much it costs over the lifetime of the home,” Crandell says. “Because if you use garbage windows or terrible heating and cooling systems, then the family who occupies the home is going to end up paying a higher price.” 

It’s all part of what King calls “playing the long game” in housing, and it’s one reason the Showcase will culminate this October with a month of public home tours, at which time residents can learn about the full benefits and costs of each model. All four homes are budgeted at about $1 million total, and the city is using a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to fund them.

While final costs are not yet available, King says there are affordable ways to adapt these construction styles for most budgets. The Housing Showcase simply offers prototypes to start the conversation, after which greater cost savings can be achieved through economies of scale.

“Something to remember is: A lot of subcontractors in Fort Wayne have never touched these housing types before, so they don’t know what the labor will be,” King says. “But I really encourage people to tour these houses when they’re done and see for themselves what the heating bills and cost savings are for each home. We’re showing it for what it is.”

The Innovative Housing Showcase gives local home industry professionals new experiences to add to their offerings, too. Allison Hanford, Owner of Hanford Home Interiors, will be designing the interior of all four houses and giving them modern, quality finishes, like quartz countertops. While she has worked in home design for about 11 years, this will be her first time designing for a shipping container home, or a HOUM, for that matter. 

“It’s nothing like I’ve done before,” she says. “You have to think about the materials of the walls and how high the ceilings will be, so it’s a different and fun challenge.” 

Once construction and public tours are complete, the houses will be sold to homeowners via Habitat for Humanity. CEO Jeremy McClish echoes Bradley’s assessment of Fort Wayne’s somewhat basic housing stock, noting that Habitat itself has been building homes the same way for about 100 years. Meanwhile, technology and housing needs are evolving.

He sees benefits of the Innovative Housing Showcase as twofold. First, Habitat has historically served families earning 80 percent of the area median income (AMI) or below, due to its funding sources. But as the “missing middle” of the housing market expands, more families are falling through the gap between 80 percent AMI and market rate, which is about 120 percent AMI. 

Since the Innovative Housing Showcase utilizes grants with a broader range of incomes than Habitat’s typical funding sources, it allows them to house families they might otherwise have to turn away.

“This automatically allows us to serve more families via homeownership,” Jeremy says. “We want to continue to serve low- to moderate-income people, but there’s a whole other portion of our community that’s maybe 80-120 AMI, where there’s no housing stock available and very little opportunity for them to become homeowners. So, we’re looking at: How do we serve this population thoughtfully?”

As a secondary piece, he says Habitat will be learning how these different housing models and technologies work to explore incorporating them into more homes it builds for the populations it already serves.

“As a nonprofit homebuilder, we’re always looking for the most cost-effective, efficient ways to build on the front end,” he says. “But we’re also looking for sustainability for our homeowners in the long-term, so we’re not putting them in a mortgage or a housing situation they can’t afford.”

Because models, like HOUM, are built with long-term affordability and sustainability in mind, they could be an ideal fit.

If all goes well with the first Innovative Housing Showcase, the City of Fort Wayne might host more in the future, too, Lundberg says.

“We’re already exploring the idea of a second round that looks at innovation from the perspective of homes you don’t typically see in Fort Wayne – whether it’s small or very narrow houses, townhouses or cottage clusters. There’s a lot we’d like to explore.”

Learn more

Follow the project’s progress, and ask questions via the city’s Engage website portal.

For more information visit fwmediacollaborative.com

This story was originally published by Kara Hackett in The Local.

Author

  • Kara Hackett

    Kara Hackett is Co-Founder and Editor of The Local Fort Wayne (thelocalfw.com), a weekly email newsletter that gives residents a rundown of hyper-local news, culture and events. Her work has appeared in The Journal Gazette, Input Fort Wayne, Living Fort Wayne, Glo Magazine, FoxNews.com, and The Huffington Post.