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Cheap San Diego Housing

By Sharon Gehl

Cheap land and inexpensive new houses in San Diego? About a hundred years ago that was true. A new form of transportation, the trolley, made large tracts of land that had been far from downtown jobs, accessible to even the "working man". The large supply of land kept prices low and the "installment plan" made them affordable to all but the poor. An article in the January 2, 1911 issue of the San Diego Union noted that a man earning from $18 to $30 a week could easily find a lot in the suburbs for $50. Closer in prices were "proportionally higher", but still affordable.

The mild climate made it possible to build simple inexpensive houses here that couldn't be built in colder parts of the county. While many lots had restrictions that wouldn't allow houses that cost less than say $3000, others didn't, and the working man could build something very inexpensive indeed. How about $100 for a "tent house"? If you've researched building permits for that period, you've run across permits for tent houses, but what were they like? Let's just quote the 1911 San Diego Union article verbatim on the subject of tent houses and other forms of cheap housing.

Tent Houses Popular

...The method of erecting a tent house most followed in San Diego is as follows:

A substantial floor is laid on a foundation of two by four redwood, as that wood is less susceptible to decay than any other. On this is erected a framework of two by three Oregon pine, allowing spaces for windows and doors. The roof is of shakes or shingles. The sides are covered with tent canvas stretched tight. The cheapest windows are those known as "barn" windows, of eight by ten lattice glass. By putting three of these sashes together, a long narrow panel, something like a French window, is the result, and the effect is both cheery and artistic.

With a trifle more labor and expense boxes can be placed under each window, and when filled with crimson geraniums, which are rapid growers from slips, or with lacy training vines, the little home is most attractive. The tent-house may consist of one room or several, as the builder desires. Partitions may be flowered burlap, stretched over studded frames, or of white cambric, covered with wallpaper. In either case, all walls should be finished to correspond. Paper is not desirable, if one wishes to have free incoming and outgoing of air.

Partitions of Canvas
Perhaps the most satisfactory plan is to have partitions of the same canvas as the exterior. By tinting or painting the canvas a uniform color is obtained and the result is pleasing. The timberwork should be of finished lumber and is a most effective background for the canvas, if stained to represent Flemish oak. It doesn't take wealth to have a cozy, charming home nest-just a little taste and good judgment. In fact it is astonishing how pleasant a tent-house can be made, under the guidance of apt hands...

"Box Houses" Make Nice Homes
Next in expensiveness to the tent house is the "box house". This may also be built from $100 up to the thousands, the cost depending on the number of rooms desired, interior finish, plumbing, etc. The style of architecture employed in the construction of box houses is flexible, adapting itself readily to the individual ideas of the different builders. The style of construction is coming into general use in the erection of California bungalows, a style of architecture of which Southern California set the pace and has achieved a national reputation. The true bungalow is invariably built on straight lines with the fancy fluffs, corkscrew curls and like trimmings left off. A cozy four-room bungalow may be built for $500, including an inexpensive fireplace.

For the average workingman this $500 bungalow of four rooms makes a cozy residence. The foundation posts may be of redwood with flooring of six-inch tongue and groove Oregon pine. No studding is generally used, except for forming the roof. Around the floor platform, twelve-inch boards, rough on the outside and planed on the inside, cut to the height of the desired ceiling, are raised, the whole, when complete, having the appearance of a huge dry goods box. The roof frame rests on top of these boards, and may be covered with either shingles or shakes. The wider the eaves the more artistic the bungalow. They should have at least a two-foot projection, three or four feet being not unusual. The joints between the siding boards are covered both outside and inside by battens. The scheme of the exterior is rustic, that of the interior paneling. It will be observed that in a house of this sort but one thickness of inch boards constitutes the walls, a freezing proposition for eastern use, but admirable for this climate. For bungalows, wood stain is used almost exclusively in preference to paint of varnish. Torch work is also popular for interiors and makes a rich, handsome finish. The ceilings of this little house may be beaded, or, better still, they may be beaded and beamed with two or three timbers, or even heavier, if the builder so chooses. Another way of finishing bungalow interiors, but somewhat more expensive, is to panel the walls to the plate rail, then plaster to the beamed ceiling.

A climate Suited to Spanish Style
One style of home that is inexpensive and that is also enjoying a great measure of popularity, is the Spanish; that is, with the rooms opening into a patio or court. Here again the climate of San Diego admirably fits itself into the scheme. With a fountain in the center, flowers of all kinds blooming on every side every day of the year, the sun missing only at night and the rainfall not sufficient to keep the family in doors many days of the year, such a house is truly "a thing of beauty and a joy forever." The box-style of houses readily adapts itself to the Spanish ideas.


Land is no longer plentiful or cheap in San Diego and the City Building Department won't allow you to build a tent or box house on your lot. If you look, there are still a few old box houses left, but I doubt if any of them are cheap. As for tent houses, have you seen any recently?

2005 - Volume 36, Issue 1

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