The white paint is peeling and cracks have formed in the foundation, but historians and some city officials say the tiny home obscured behind overgrown shrubs and a sagging chain-link fence in Tobin Hill is worth something.
“We tend to think of these as really small, nondescript buildings,” said Tara Dudley, architectural historian and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. “But they were that way for a reason and very adaptable. And it’s really important that we consider that in the continued development and growth of our urban cities.”
Dudley spoke this week during a presentation sponsored by the City’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) focused on San Antonio’s estimated 33,000 casitas, shotgun houses, and bungalows.
The tiny homes – less than 1,000 square feet in size and built prior to 1960 – were also at the center of a 2019 OHP study that examined the preservation of “old houses” as a strategy for stabilizing long-term homeownership rates, increasing the availability of affordable rental units, and preventing displacement in inner-city neighborhoods.
The study revealed that as San Antonio experiences growth in jobs and housing, newly built homes are expensive and large – often double that of homes built a century ago – while much of the job growth is in lower-paying jobs.
And when it comes to affordability, size matters. Because older homes tend to be smaller, they serve as a viable option for some households. But some of the existing older homes are in poor condition or long vacant, requiring costly repairs out of reach for many homeowners.
In 2010, OHP launched a program known as STAR – Students Together Achieving Revitalization – that partners with the College of Architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio to get student volunteers involved in rehabilitating old homes in historic neighborhoods. STAR results in repairs five to 20 homes a year depending on the number of students participating.
The City also hosts the annual Rehabarama volunteer event to help upgrade older homes, completing 18 to 20 houses per event.
Of the nearly 525,000 total housing units in San Antonio, 22% were constructed prior to 1960, and almost 30% of those are single-family dwellings, according to the OHP study, “Opportunity at Risk.” Almost 90% are considered to be in average or fair condition – lacking modern upgrades and minor repairs, but completely habitable and functional.
In 2018, OHP initiated a Shotgun House Rehabilitation Pilot program that began as a collaboration among the City, the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Department of Construction Science, and the nonprofits Neighborhood Housing Services of San Antonio and Micro:SA. The program started with three homes in varying conditions.
Tuesday’s program with Dudley was an effort by OHP to make more people aware of the inherent value and history in San Antonio’s tiny homes.
“What we are trying to highlight is that we have such a wealth of resources,” said Shanon Miller, historic preservation officer and OHP director for the City of San Antonio. “All of these older and historic housing stock [presents] an opportunity for affordable housing in our community, and it’s an opportunity … to really tell the story of our city and have it be more than just what’s traditionally thought of as historic.”
But big challenges remain for some owners of the small homes.
The presentation also featured Rosemary Geyer, the owner of a typical tiny house north of the Tobin Hill neighborhood that was built in the 1890s by a man married to her grandmother’s sister.
Though she doesn’t know how long the family lived in the shotgun house – one-room-wide single-story homes with doorways lined up from front to back – her mother recalled the fields of sunflowers that once grew in the area.
By the 1930s and ‘40s, renters occupied the house, and today’s occupant is related to a family who rented the home in the 1970s, Geyer said. The monthly rent is $160.
“I would like to keep this house affordable,” she said, but it is in need of a “complete overhaul” – new electrical, plumbing, paint.
She can’t afford the high cost of renovation, estimated at $100,000, nor the property taxes that would increase as a result. “After remodeling, I won’t be able to rent it as affordable housing because of how expensive it is now to renovate anything,” Geyer said.
The home is one of four on its street, located only a mile from the booming Pearl area. In 2017, the home was assessed at $58,000, according to tax records, and over $94,000 in 2021, resulting in an annual tax payment of $2,639.
“Our taxes are sky-high,” Geyer said. “When we protested our taxes one year, they told us just knock it down … it’s not worth anything.”
Yet the OHP-commissioned study recommended the City increase the production, preservation, and rehabilitation of affordable homes that are for sale and rent, and prevent and mitigate displacement.
Until the City can put new programs and policies into place so that the average family can afford to buy a home, the study concluded, “San Antonio is systematically razing housing that is affordable and building housing that is not.”