SAN FRANCISCO–Jim Reid’s solution to the homeless problem in San Francisco: Tiny houses. His solution to the affordable-housing problem in San Francisco?

SAN FRANCISCO–Jim Reid’s solution to the homeless problem in San Francisco: Tiny houses. His solution to the affordable-housing problem in San Francisco? You guessed it: Tiny Houses.

Reid built a fully equipped prototype, Shelter-One, to show how small a house could be — and still be a home. The prototype, which has a 10-by-10 interior and cost about $12,000 to build, features a picket fence, a bed, a desk, a shower and bathtub, a combination washer-dryer unit and, yes, even the kitchen sink.

View slideshow of prototype homeless shelter.

Almost a century ago, when the 1906 earthquake leveled hundreds of city blocks in San Francisco, Reid’s ideas were not so radical and revolutionary. Rather, such proposals were considered practical and necessary to house the tens of thousands of residents left homeless by the disaster. An estimated 250,000 city residents were left homeless after the earthquake, and makeshift tent cities set up around the outskirts of the city gave way to tight rows of sturdy shacks, built through an effort of a relief group, the San Francisco Park Superintendent, the U.S. Army and San Francisco Union Carpenters.

About 5,600 shacks were built, housing a peak population of about 16,500 people, according to historians’ accounts. There were four different designs for these refugee shacks, the smallest of which was 10-by-14. As the displaced residents regained their footing, some of them moved away from the temporary camps. The city, seeking a complete phase-out of the shack communities, charged a $2 per month rental fee that was counted toward the purchase of the shacks. When the tenants became owners of the tiny homes, they were required to move their shacks from the parks, according to a National Park Service account. Horses were used to haul the shacks to new locations within the city.

Reid finds inspiration in those days, when the homeless became homeowners and the city was reborn. “There was a precedent,” he said, for his modern-day little house in the city. Some of the shacks were patched together or fitted with additions over the years, so that their original form is hardly recognizable. One researcher has identified about 20 shacks that still stand in the city, including a pair of green-painted shacks preserved in the city’s Presidio.

Reid, a two-time candidate for San Francisco mayor, a persistent political provocateur and a building contractor by trade, said bureaucracy is the biggest barrier to realizing his dream of populating the city with tiny homes for the homeless. Of course, it’s also his only hope.

“Government is so entrenched, they never think out of the box,” Reid said. In this case, though, Reid said he would like to see government “come into the box,” referring to the boxlike Shelter-One unit. He has brought the “box” to local government officials several times, in fact, towing Shelter One to City Hall on a trailer as an educational exhibit.

“The government needs to realize you’ve got to remove obstacles with common sense.” And he is making some progress. Homeless issues were at the forefront of the latest mayoral race in the city. And local officials are studying whether Shelter-One units could serve as shelters.

Matt Gonzalez, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, issued a resolution in March urging the Mayor’s Office of Homelessness, the Department of Building Inspection and the Planning Department “to investigate the viability of using Jim Reid’s Shelter-One (the smallest house in San Francisco) as a potential homeless shelter in a test pilot project.”

Already, a team of San Francisco building inspectors has checked out the prototype shelter, which is sited behind a commercial building at 205 13th St. Jim Hutchinson, deputy director for the city’s Department of Building Inspection, stated, “It is a wonderful design with a lot of potential. We were all impressed by the design.”

But current building codes require at least 220 square feet of space for a dwelling unit, with at least one room having a floor area of 120 square feet. Inspectors noted that, minus the bathroom space, the structure has only about 50 square feet of usable area. Inspectors noted a few other code violations, too. The front steps lacked a handrail and guardrail and an appropriately sized landing, the unit lacked a permanent heat source and a permanently installed smoke detector, and the location and some features of the toilet were not compliant with code.

Reid said that the current bandage of spending millions of dollars in homeless services “is a brilliant farce. We’re spending less today than we did five years ago and we’re not building any housing.” Reid said he would like homeless people to contribute to their own destiny, building their own Shelter-One homes with some basic training and supervision. “I want to have homeless people build these because there’s more dignity. You don’t destroy things that are your own,” he said. “I could teach any homeless person to build housing.”

There will certainly need to be standards for homeless people who wish to live in the small shelters, Reid said, and he suggested that they could earn their keep by picking up trash or performing gardening work in the area of their shelters. Reid has other ambitious plans for improving the living conditions of the city’s homeless population, including a proposal to take over the historic Armory building on Mission Street and convert it into a shelter for 500 homeless veterans. There are hundreds of other vacant buildings in the city that could be converted into affordable housing or housing for the homeless, too, he said.

Reid has drawn up plans for mini, modular apartment complexes that combine a number of Shelter-One-type units. Such structures could be built on a handful of parking spaces in a church parking lot, for example, he said. And he has created designs for Shelter-Two, a 20-by-20 home suitable for two people, and Shelter-Three, a 30-by-30 unit that could house a small family.

Like many residents in San Francisco, Reid is not a homeowner. Though he may never be able to afford the typical home on the market in San Francisco, Reid said he would never leave the city. “I would become homeless before I would leave,” he said. If small homes like Shelter-One are allowed in the city, Reid said he and others could experience home ownership for the first time. “It’s the American Dream, shrunken.”

He added, “What (high home prices) do is imprison people in rental housing. That’s not good for society. There are people who are natives born in this city who can’t afford to live here. What are we going to do?”

Though he is a visionary, Reid is also realistic. He said the affordable-housing problem can’t be solved in isolation. “If you don’t address parking and traffic and housing simultaneously you are not going to solve the problem,” he said. “Migration went out to the suburbs for awhile. What we need to do is make big cities into wonderful places to live. We need to pool humans back into big cities.”

A blue plaque on the front door of the prototype shelter carries a quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

For Reid, this one tiny prototype embodies some very big ideas.

Send tips, feedback or a letter to the editor to or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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