San Francisco Refugee Shacks: The Bay Area’s First Tiny House Movement

This month, on August 17, a 4.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Bay Area. As a Realtor, I spend most of my days thinking about houses, particularly in the Bay Area. So this quake – centered close to my house, but felt throughout the East Bay, and all the way from downtown San Francisco to the Peninsula – got me thinking about the San Francisco refugee shacks built after the 1906 earthquake.

We can’t ignore the fact that the Bay Area will experience another earthquake of that magnitude and we will be in a similar position. Will we all cram into tiny micro houses again? Can you imagine what they would look like? Where would we have room to put them? And how much would they cost?

Back in the day they went for $2/month, or just $50. Today the same shacks are said to go for $800k! That’s right: refugee housing that costs close to a million dollars and is basically a box with some windows. Got it.

“Micro-units and tiny homes have trendiness on their side, but living small is nothing new in San Francisco. In fact, more than 100 years ago, a huge proportion of San Franciscans were living in houses under 200 square feet.” – Curbed SF

I‘m imagining that back then they weren’t nearly as tidy, clean and adorable as today’s – like the one pictured below from my blog post, “Home Conversions and the Tiny House Movement.” For 1,600,000% more, a few upgrades would be expected.

Let’s take a look back at what happened in 1906…

The devastating quake of 1906 killed 3,000 people and left more than half the population of San Francisco – over 200,000 people – homeless. While a good amount of people moved away, those who stayed were initially set up in tents at camp sites around the city.

Even then, Californians had a skewed perspective on what cold weather was, because, as winter approached, General Greely designed winter homes (refugee shacks), for people to resettle in based upon his experience building arctic shelters!

5,610 (5,300 of which were in San Francisco proper), houses were built by the relief committee, and 16,448 refugees were resettled and moved out of their summer homes.

“Until recently, it was thought that only a handful were left, fading away like the human survivors. Now it turns out that maybe 100 of them are left…hidden in plain sight.” – From SF Gate.

If you could haul it, you could have it!

In 1907, just a year after the earthquake, the government shut down the camps, and the shacks were given away – as long as someone could take them away.

Now we use moving trucks, then they used mules. People (and their mule helpers!) often carried more than one. One of these “double wides” can still be seen at 43 Carver Street in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights (pictured below). This one has swelled to a whopping 600 sq ft, and added a bathroom (extravagant!). It is estimated to be worth over $1,000,000!

Where to see San Francisco Refugee Shacks Today

Public Display:

  • San Francisco Zoo – one
  • Presidio – a couple
    • Two, preserved, are behind the old post hospital at the corner of Lincon Blvd. and Funston Ave. (pictured above)

Private Homes:

  • Sunset – 3
  • Ocean View – 4
  • Daly City – several
  • San Bruno – a few
  • Santa Cruz – at least 1
  • Bernal Heights – 24
    • At 43 Carver Street there is still a funky little house made out of 2 shacks.
    • Another is at 20 Newman St, near Holly Park.
    • At 164 Bocana St, just south of the Bernal Heights Park, you would never recognize the modern headquarters of a dog-walking service as one of these refugee shacks as it has bay windows decorated with flower boxes and disguised with a lovely porch.

For a great article on Curbed SF with pictures and locations click here.

Additional Sources:


  1. Kristen von Bargen says:

    One of these refugee shacks is for sale!

    “It is a worn-down, decomposing wooden shack that was built in 1906, and the interior is unlivable in its current condition. Located at 16 De Long Street in the (slightly) more affordable Outer Mission district, the house’s price is a reflection of the skyrocketing real estate market in San Francisco. Since 2012, the city has seen a 103% increase in median housing prices; this month, that figure stands at $1.35 million.

    “According to realtors Brian Tran and Alexander Han, the shack is “the cheapest home listed in San Francisco.”

    “The home is selling for $458 per square foot in an area where the average square foot is $1,066.”

    From this article in Fortune.


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