Project news
Home Silk Road - Housing toward empowerment Lyon Metropole, France
Modifier 25 July 2020
by Ruth Owen, UIA Expert

Mobile, Modular Housing: Building Blocks for Inclusion? The Metropole of Lyon Tests them with Home Silk Road

This summer a small group of modular housing units appeared on the site of the Home Silk Road Project in Villerbanne, a municipality to the East of the Metropole of Lyon. This article looks at what they are doing there and whether they can become part of the solution to homelessness and housing exclsusion in the Metropole of Lyon.

Home Silk Road is part of L’Autre Soie urban renewal project, which involves the transformation of a 23 500 m² brownfield site into a new,  inclusive neighbourhood. By 2023 L’Autre Soie will deliver 278 homes in a mixture of tenures:  affordable home ownership, community housing, supported housing, social housing and student housing. The new neighbourhood will include permanent spaces for culture, social inclusion and the social economy. Home Silk Road is all about creating an inclusive space in the city during the urban renewal process. Housing, culture and inclusion activities are taking place during the demolition and construction phase.

In early July, the first 18 of 54  modular homes were installed on the site’s car park. Once secured and connected to the mains, these factory-prefabricated wood-frame modules will create 3 buildings, on 3 floors. The modules and exterior fittings (stairs, passageways, etc.) will be in place by December. There will also be a reception area and office space for the Alynea, the NGO which will manage the housing and support the people living there. There will also be common areas (common room, laundry bike and pushchair storage etc).  Individual units will be modelled according to the needs of families: each can be made up of several modules.

The modules are destined to provide temporary housing for homeless families who are currently staying in a homeless shelter on the site, run by Alynea. About 100 people will live here for 3 years, and continue to receive social support from Alynea. The shelter will be demolished during the project and the final development will include a Residence Social, providing supported housing to formerly homeless people.   The goal is for all the families currently in the shelter to be able to move on to more permanent housing. This is challenging because many need to obtain legal residence.  

Once the construction project is completed and the families have moved out, the temporary modules will be moved and deployed at other sites in the East of the Metropole of Lyon. Their mission will be to provide emergency housing on temporary sites. The 22 units will be transformed into 40 one-room apartments of 40m², intended to accommodate up to 40 individuals. The Metropole sees these units as an important tool in its efforts to tackle homelessness and housing exclusion.

Modular housing is increasingly used to provided temporary accommodation to homeless households in European cities. In the UK, for example, a growing number of local authorities have developed modular housing schemes to deliver on their legal duty to provide temporary housing to homeless families. Many of these are converted shipping containers or prefabricated steel modules. However, other construction methods are also used, including “self-build”. Internationally, “tiny homes”, “pods” and other forms of mobile, modular housing are increasingly catching the attention of policymakers as a potential solution to homelessness.  Seattle has built tens of tiny house villages as a way of tackling the “tent cities” emerging in the city in a context of spiralling homelessness.

The advantages of modular and mobile housing are that it can be produced quickly, and relatively cheaply.  In fact, construction costs vary a lot. High-quality modular housing is not always particularly “cheap” to produce. A key factor is the cost of land. In dynamic urban growth centres like Lyon, the cost of land is the biggest obstacle to building affordable housing. Modular and mobile housing allows for the temporary use of land which is not available for permanent housing such as brownfield construction sites. It can be deployed as a short-term response and then recycled.

The use of modular and mobile housing as a public policy instrument raises many issues in terms of adequacy. Critics draw attention to quality issues such as lack of space and light, noise, poor insulation, and ventilation. The physical quality of housing has serious implications for health and well-being. If the housing is on an isolated site, residents can be cut off from services and community. The temporary nature of the housing is another issue. It is well established that the best solution to homelessness is rapid access to permanent housing. Mobile, modular housing may be an attractive “quick fix” but it cannot provide a structural solution to the problem. Lastly, the stigmatizing effects of living in cheap, temporary housing on land that is temporarily available can be very significant.  

In the case of Home Silk Road, the modular units are built to a high-quality specification. The families who will live there have played an active role in the design process. The fact that the site is a cultural and social “hub” and that the residents-to-be are already established there is important, as is the ongoing support that they will receive. The real test of this housing will be how the families themselves judge it once they are living there.

Whilst modular, mobile units will never provide a structural solution to homelessness, the Metropole of Lyon is testing their use as part of a much broader housing strategy. The Metropole is developing a Housing First approach to homelessness in the territory, seeking to provide permanent housing and support as the main solution to homelessness. In the context of the pandemic, it has committed to no-one returning to the streets after the COVID-19 crisis. Home Silk Road hopes to prove that high quality modular, mobile housing to respond to emergency needs is one tool in a broader strategy to address homelessness and housing exclusion.  Rendez-vous in 2023 to share the lessons learned!