Houston Chronicle

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

- By Scott Huddleston STAFF WRITER shuddlesto­n@express-news.net

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.

 ?? Billy Calzada / Staff photograph­er ?? A row of homes in San Antonio includes a “shotgun house,” right, thought to have been built in the 1870s. City officials believe such houses can be used to help in the recovery from the pandemic.
Billy Calzada / Staff photograph­er A row of homes in San Antonio includes a “shotgun house,” right, thought to have been built in the 1870s. City officials believe such houses can be used to help in the recovery from the pandemic.

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