Mass-produced mobile homes are one of rural America’s most important forms of housing. One company wants to try the same concept with urban apartments. It’s a batty idea that may not work, but if it does, it could help to solve America’s urban affordability crisis.

The idea works like this: Rather than custom-designing every individual building, what if apartment buildings were mere frames, and apartments were mobile boxes that simply slipped into docks, the way cars park in a parking garage?

When people who live in mobile apartments move from one city to another, they could take their entire apartment with them. Slide out of your frame in Denver and slide into one in San Francisco, and keep on living without the disruption of emptying your home to a shell.

Perhaps most importantly, the company pushing this idea says they’d be drastically cheaper than a studio apartment.

The company, Kasita, is building a prototype in Austin next year, where they say they’ll rent units for around $600 a month. That’s half the cost of a downtown Austin studio.

Trade-offs abound

Obviously, there are trade-offs to this idea. At 200 square feet, these would be small apartments. Suitable for a single person, crowded for a couple, and hard to work with for a family.

Kasita’s version comes comes with high-tech bells and whistles like customizable wall panels, including speakers, shelves, a bike rack, even a fish tank and fireplace. But surely, if this concept takes off, competing companies would begin to offer more bare-bones versions.

Bells and whistles. Rendering from Kasita.

Kasita’s claim of $600 per month remains theoretical, and who knows how much it would actually cost to move one.

And aesthetically, a lot of people will think they’re ugly. Like shipping container apartments, mobile apartments will necessarily have an industrial look. A city full of these might quickly begin to feel oppressive.

The Japanese example

This is actually not a new idea. Japan has been home to some experiments in capsule architecture, most notably the 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower. But Nakagin proved impractical and unpopular, and has slipped into disrepair. Fair from proving the concept works, it actually shows how failure is more likely than success.

These are real trade-offs, impossible to ignore. But given America’s growing affordability crisis, maybe they’re trade-offs that are worth experimenting with, sometimes, in some places, for some people.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.