Wanona Satcher, an urban designer, landscape architect, and city planner, has been working for years to find an equitable, realistic solution to the affordable housing challenge plaguing cities across the country. Urban rents are rising while incomes are largely stagnant — one study estimated we’ll need an additional 4.6 million new apartments by 2030 just to keep up with demand.
Meanwhile, though owning your own business is one way individuals can ensure a stable income and rise out of poverty, office rents in cities are also going up, leaving small business owners in the lurch.
This gap is why, a year ago, entrepreneur Satcher started ReJuve, an Atlanta-based non-profit urban design lab that plans to turn shipping containers into residential and commercial dwellings for low-income families, small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Satcher originally began exploring how to drive sustainable urban development while serving as a city employee helping establish the Durham Urban Innovation Center in Durham, North Carolina. There, part of her role was to help develop neighborhood revitalization strategies, one of which involved turning blighted or abandoned properties into community spaces.
“That led me on a quest to figure out how to engage communities and do it in a way that’s around rehabilitating properties. As I moved through the thinking process, I started looking at the idea of re-using containers because of their mobility and easy access, and because they were small enough to rehab and customize,” explains Satcher.
The idea for the Plug-in-Pod — a rehabilitated shipping container that has been outfitted with plumbing, electricity and more — was born.
Plug-in-Pods can be office and entrepreneurial space for small businesses, even possibly used as co-working.
“The idea is to create spaces and communities that are equitable, and utilize the shipping containers as a tool for short-term innovation that leads to permanent development,” she says.
Satcher moved back to Atlanta, her hometown, in 2017 to begin working in earnest on Plug-in-Pods.
The first step was to raise some capital — though shipping containers are cheap, they aren’t free, and they still need to be turned into usable dwellings. ReJuve launched a crowdfunding campaign with an initial goal of $20,000. During the campaign (which is open until June 30), Satcher realized they likely would not need the full amount for the initial prototyping stage.
They have almost $15,000 right now, but plan to complete the 20-foot prototype unit this summer. Located in Atlanta’s West End, it will serve as a showcase piece to help Satcher articulate her vision.
“Those funds allow us to hire locally and especially hire women,” Satcher says. She points to the number of welders, plumbers and manufacturers that can be contracted to help produce Plug-in-Pods, helping close the loop of local development.
“Through this work we can not only build for small businesses, but we can also hire small businesses.”
ReJuve has also recently landed a contract to construct two container spaces on the 30-acre Pittsburgh Yards mixed-use development in Atlanta’s Southside. For Satcher, whose family has roots in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, it feels like coming full circle.
“It’s great to come back and give back,” she says. They’re currently going through the permitting phase of that project.
The two Pittsburgh Pods will serve as a gathering spot and office space for a community development group, though they may change hands and even locations depending on the project’s developers.
“Containers happen to be very sexy for developers, because it allows them to have some permanency, sort of a temporary permanency, and attract eyes and visitors to the site, but also move them as they see fit,” explains Satcher.
Satcher is also exploring how, in the near future, they can implement a tech-enablement component into the Pods. She envisions a cloud system that allows residents to connect with other small businesses to share services and search for information, as well as close the digital literacy gap that is pervasive and debilitating to low-income communities.
She is hopeful that Atlanta’s new Mayoral administration and local officials will see her solution as a viable way to address city development.
“Everyone is looking at, how do we figure this affordable housing situation out in a way that’s efficient and effective?”