Could 121 Perry Street be the ‘vessel’ of affordable housing?

The soft white futuristic looking apartment building located at 121 Perry Street in Trenton, New Jersey may serve as a model for affordable housing across the country and is Trenton’s first smart apartment luxury building. 

The Vessel is a prototype that includes six two-bedroom units of 750 square feet for $1,390 a month by Vessel Technologies, a New York City based company founded in 2017 that promises to provide access to homes that are exciting, sustainable, and attainable. 

Mayor Reed Gusciora sought out the company to develop some of Trenton’s long-standing vacant properties into affordable housing. Vessel currently has 10 projects under development throughout the Northeast. The company uses in-unit technology to keep tenants informed of their consumption of electricity and water, to bring a greater understanding of consumption while aiming to fix the “broken housing” market by leveraging new technology and innovation. 

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“What Vessel would like to do is to provide for our local firefighters, police officers, nurses, those who are a part of the general working class, but who find themselves sort of priced out when it comes to higher-end [apartments],” said Captain Joseph Deacon, a lifetime Trenton resident, firefighter, and Vessel’s first franchisee. 

Mayor Gusciora and Captain Joseph Deacon standing in front of Vessel’s entrance

A 2023 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) revealed that in New Jersey, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,742. In order to afford this level of rent and utilities — without paying more than 30% of income on housing a household must earn $5,806 monthly or $69,675 annually. Also, according to the NLIHC, Trenton is one of the most expensive areas to live in New Jersey. Renters in Trenton will have to earn at least $33.31 an hour to afford a 2-bedroom fair market rate apartment. 

“[The Vessel] is very much part of the new Trenton,” Mayor Gusciora said. “A lot of people don’t want the headache of home ownership, but they will love something that is modern, new and attainable,” he continued. 

The first tenant at 121 Perry Street moved into the building in July of last year, and all units in the three story six unit development quickly filled up to meet the medium to moderate income level with smart, luxury, safe housing in Trenton. 

“Vessel’s mission is to subsidize the building [process], so we focus more on being eco friendly, net zero, solar panels, things that would actually bring value into the apartment so that residents don’t have to pay such a high fee…we don’t have to worry about gaining residents, because it’s so well-priced,” Deacon told the Trenton Journal during a tour of the property.  “Our initiative is to always stay somewhere below $300 what the median rent is [in the city] so that we can attract a certain group back into the city that would like to live here.”

Deacon says that he would like to do a much larger project in Trenton in the future that would range between 30 to 60 apartments by utilizing some of the city’s vacant properties. “I think it’s a perfect marriage on our end to be able to provide the housing that will lend itself to the median to moderate income group while at the same time providing subsidies on the backend to the city and obviously providing tax dollars to unused land.”

The Vessel modern apartments are built out of prefrabricated, modular containers and replete with ceilings that vault to nine feet, massive 45 square foot windows that floods every space with daylight, an oversized shower, and a private dressing room. Every apartment features stainless steel appliances, smart home integrated technology for temperature and lighting control with voice commands for mobile devices, and washer and dryer (the most popular feature among tenants). The Vessel represents a beacon of hope of what revitalization could look like for the rest of the Perry Street neighborhood.

Vessel’s patented design utilizes a façade system that purports to be twice as energy efficient as would be required under the most stringent building codes. This significantly reduces heating and cooling demand and consequently, power consumption. Meanwhile, the structure’s lobby and corridors are open to fresh air, which allows for the energy to be used to heat or cool the residential units and not empty common areas.

“We sought Vessel out and invited them to come in and they felt that the city was such a good fit.  It’s really hard to find developers because it is more of abandoned patchwork so you can take down an abandoned home or two and then put in a Vessel home in its place,” said Mayor Gusciora. Before the Vessel apartment building was erected four row homes sat vacant for years. In 2021 a Vessel Technologies representative was granted permission from the city council to purchase and develop the site. 

Nationwide Model

The next development Vessel Technologies is working on will be a 30-unit affordable housing building in New London, Connecticut, which is expected to be complete by this summer, with units averaging $1,600 a month. The franchise would like to model its concept nationwide and invites potential franchisees to fill out an initial inquiry form on their website. Upfront investments range between $50,000 to $150,000, depending upon size of location and other factors. Prefabricated homes have not only been thought of as an answer to the national affordable housing crisis for low to moderate income residents, but some cities like Newark, New Jersey have used shipping containers as a way to address homelessness. In March of 2021, New Jersey’s largest city launched Newark Hope Village, an innovative 90-day program using converted containers to shelter residents who are at-risk or without addresses.

The facility of seven containers has the capacity to shelter 24 homeless individuals from the Penn Station corridor. The containers, which have been converted into code-compliant modular residences, consist of 20 dorm-style rooms, and two utility structures with private shower rooms and a multipurpose structure. The rooms have simple furnishings including a heater, bunk bed with extra storage and a small dresser. The project was funded by the CARES Act, the Essex County Division of Community Action through the State of New Jersey Code Blue Grant, and the City of Newark.

Captain Deacon of the Engine Six Fire Department grew up in Trenton and attended Trenton Central High School, is not only a franchisee at the Perry Street location, but he lives there and manages the property. ‍”I grew up here, Class of ‘04. This is the story. A local person who can become a franchise owner. You never even heard of franchising an apartment building [before]. ” Deacon says that he has always had an affinity for anything going on in the city and describes himself as a “gadget nut.” Deacon said when he saw a bit of Silicon Valley being built in the “hood” he wanted to learn more about the development. As a new fire captain at the time, Deacon would routinely take tours around the city to assess safety conditions in case of a fire he and his team would know how to rapidly respond. 

The Vessel building is an uncommon construction in the city and was often used as a routine location for fire inspections. “Once I got to know more about building I met [Vessel Technologies] founder (Neil Rubler) and hit it off with him. My goal was to always be a developer, but you need a history of developing for most times to do things with the city for them to take you seriously.” Deacon previously owned properties in Trenton, but the Vessel is the first major project he worked on as a consultant. 

“We have to find a happy medium for what we want from developers in this city. You want revenue, you want a lot of your abandoned houses torn down and repurposed. You have to find a balance where you can employ individuals from the city so that contractors are being used, but at the same time you want to attract outside investors’ money. So you have to find a happy medium on both ends where we can give you employment and tax dollars, but at the same time obviously being able to build according to some form of fair opportunity amongst developers,” Deacon said.

The 37-year-old knows what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. “I’m young, I’m Black, I fight fires for the city, and I couldn’t become a developer for the city [until now].” Deacon said that he had to show the city some history of larger projects in order to get in the game. Now, with his experience as the first time franchisee of the Vessel, he may be forging a path into the future of affordable and sustainable housing in the capital city.


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