Sunday, April 18, 2021

SF Quake Shacks are Early Model for Disaster Relief and Tiny Housing

Keyed to the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, yesterday the San Francisco Chronicle had a fascinating piece on "quake shacks," tiny cottages built in the aftermath as emergency housing, of which a few survive scattered around the city today.

Yesterday in SF Chronicle

From the piece:

[the cottages are] the Shelby Mustang or Stradivarius of tiny houses: one of dozens of surviving 1906 earthquake shacks that are still scattered around the city. Some are lived in by people who don’t realize their celebrity status....

There were once 5,610 refugee shacks in 11 San Francisco parks, assembled with lightning speed in the months after the April 18, 1906, earthquake and fire. Today, there are fewer than 50 identified in the city. But those that remain are a symbol of civic vision, built in a bureaucracy-free utopia that included a partnership among city officials, labor unions and the U.S. Army. They’re also a symbol of post-crisis rebirth, designed to house the displaced workers who built back San Francisco better than ever....

Using redwood and fir lumber sent from Washington state and Oregon, the cottages were built in tight clusters in the parks with cooperation among the San Francisco Parks Commission, headed by John McLaren, the San Francisco Relief Corporation and the Army. Tenants paid $2 monthly rent on cottages valued at $50, with the option to own. And in 1907, many shack owners hauled their new property using literal horse power, becoming starter homes in empty lots across San Francisco and beyond.

With the price of land and housing in SF, houses that small should be removed and middle housing or even towers should be built. It is nearly objectively true that such small houses in the urban context of SF are inherently wasteful and exclusionary. Even if the rent or cost of the tiny cottage is relatively affordable, it is for only one family, and a larger multiple of attached homes would serve several families and households. The opportunity cost of using the land for one single tiny home is significant.

April 18th, 1906

At the same time, there is a compelling historical case that at least some outstanding representatives should be preserved as part of the history of one of the quintessential moments in San Francisco history. And as we seek to revive cottage clusters, tiny houses, and even very cheap shacks as temporary shelters to be part of today's housing mix, this is an interesting model, some of whose elements might be relevant or retrievable for today's needs.

This is a really interesting clash of strong values, not easily resolvable to one side or the other.

Addendum, Monday

This is not directly relevant, but it is an instance of argument in bad faith offered by preservationists, and touches on the idea of demolishing or removing an old, historically significant house. (We may come back to this, so I'm parking it here.)

Restore Oregon testimony on SB458

To SB458, a bill to facilitate "land division to separate dwelling units for new middle housing allowed in cities," an important preservation group, Restore Oregon, argues that building a new 3000 square foot home after demolishing a 1500 square foot home is extravagantly wasteful.

That is true, but that's not the primary subject and intent of the bill.

Any demolition envisioned by the bill is more like demolishing a 1500 square foot home and replacing it with four 750 square foot homes.

The bill is not primarily to facilitate a 1:1 replacement in homes but is for a multiple like 1:4 homes.

(It also omits that the opportunity cost of new close-in housing is father-out housing with longer commutes and more driving. The calculation needs to balance carbon embedded in a house with carbon emitted by new commutes from the edge of a city.)

The argument is against a straw man and is not made in good faith. Instead of arguing for quality and targeted preservation, it is arguing for preservation as exclusionary zoning.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

There is a project being floated by United Way to build small cottages on some City surplus land. The cottages would be in a cluster of 5 to 7 houses on a lot that is only slightly bigger than a typical single family lot. The cottages would be about 450 to 600 sq feet and have a single bedroom but full utilities, including probably a washer and dryer. They would look to be rented to single women for about $350 a month. This is something that Salem used to have quite a few of after WWI and then even more after WWII. If this works out, I would hope that more cottage clusters could be built. The location being looked at is near a bus line and close to shopping, and may not provide parking.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

That sounds like a good project, and it will be interesting to learn more about it!

(Also added a note on an instance of the way preservationists argue in bad faith against middle housing.)