Saving San Antonio’s ‘shotgun houses’
A city program will examine how to fix up and maintain hundreds of the homes that are part of the community’s heritage
SAN ANTONIO — Dotted throughout this city’s urban core are historic little “shotgun houses” that provide affordable, energy-efficient shelter.
They’re part of the city’s heritage, typically tethered to working-class families through deep personal connections.
Now, a $250,000 pilot program will explore ways to best rehabilitate and maintain hundreds of these houses as part of a solution to the pandemic-era economic recovery.
In coordination with the University of Texas at San Antonio, construction experts and craftsmen, the city’s program will start by rehabilitating three houses on the near West Side, seeking to save the structures and possibly creating a viable career path for displaced workers.
City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales initiated the program in her West Side district and said it began nearly eight years ago when a constituent was forced to move in with a relative because her house was razed after it deteriorated below city building codes.
“We really didn’t have any options for her, and we ended up demolishing her home. It was by all accounts not livable. She told me many times, ‘I know I can’t live there, but I raised 10 children there,’” recalled Gonzales, who leads the Planning and Land Development Committee.
The woman had shown the councilwoman handwritten receipts proving she’d paid $12,000 for the house, Gonzales said during a virtual meeting of the committee last week.
Shotgun houses were so named because of their narrow, linear form. They were popular in warm climates in the 1800s and early 1900s. But many of them have been demolished.
The oldest known shotgun house in San Antonio was built in 1877, the city’s Office of Historic Preservation says.
In recent years, the city has come to recognize the houses as historic — with prodding from preservation activists. In 2013, it approved a local landmark designation for a row of five of them in the 1100 block of Guadalupe Street.
Besides being considered cultural heritage assets, shotgun houses are existing affordable housing stock that is in greater demand and harder to find. They are usually between 400 and 1,000 square feet.
Working with nonprofits, contractors, artisans and UTSA’s School of Construction Science and Management, the pilot program seeks to rehabilitate three houses, including one that’s vacant. This would be done as a model for what could occur in other parts of the city, through creation of “how-to guides” for contractors, nonprofits and financial institutions to repair and maintain small houses.
The program will have a student-training opportunity in February, with a master craftsman rehabbing wood windows on one house. It has targeted a May timeline for completion of the rehabilitation work to all three homes.
“We want to look at best practices to retain existing affordable housing stock, and housing stock that is currently affordable so that it remains affordable,” said Veronica Soto, the city’s director of neighborhood and housing services.
Celia Mendoza, a local architect, has owned a 700-squarefoot “double shotgun” rental unit near San Antonio College for nearly 20 years. It has no driveway or hallway, is cooled with ceiling fans and a window unit, and is warmed with space heaters.
It’s an “efficient, modest” dwelling, ideal for college students and people in the service industry, Mendoza said.
City Councilman Roberto Treviño said the program is promising, but he cautioned it could inadvertently “create a valuation that is just not sustainable, or long term cannot be attainable by those who would be living in these properties.”
Treviño said a citywide expansion of the program would need to be coordinated with an appeal to the Bexar Appraisal District not to spike values based on maintenance of historic houses.
He recommended creation of a subsection of the building codes that provides flexibility on plumbing and electrical upgrades in older houses.
Shanon Miller, director of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, said the city could expand its tax incentives for work done to save the small, old homes.
Lessons learned from the program hopefully will provide solutions to the harsh realities that have resulted in the destruction of thousands of houses, Miller she said.