In an effort to set a precedent for sustainable housing that’s also affordable, San Antonio Affordable Housing Inc., a nonprofit branch of the city’s urban renewal agency, plans to build two experimental homes on the far East Side, one using earthen materials for its walls.
In building the prototypes, San Antonio Affordable Housing Inc. hopes to address the dearth of affordable homes in San Antonio, where the median cost of a house is fast approaching $300,000, in ways that are both sustainable and cost-effective in the long term. The plan is to sell these homes at-cost: $125,000 each.
“The end goal is to see how we can use the most sustainable building practices for affordable housing,” said Ian Benavidez, assistant director of the city’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department (NHSD).
The two-bedroom, two-bathroom houses will total 1,000 square feet each on a half-acre lot south of the intersection of San Salvador Avenue and Denver Boulevard, a property which the city donated to San Antonio Affordable Housing Inc. last month for the project. Designed to imitate the structures of the surrounding neighborhood, the shotgun-style homes with have small front porches and an optional expansion to accommodate growing families.
One house will be built using the traditional wood-frame method, but will rest upon helical piers—or, giant screws—instead of the standard concrete slab used for most foundations. These piers can be adjusted post-construction to adapt to shifting soil conditions—a known problem in San Antonio—thus enhancing the house’s expected life cycle.
The other home will be built using rammed earth—a non-traditional method of building using compacted sand, gravel, clay, and earth to build thick walls with powerful insulation that will lower the household’s energy bills in the long term.
San Antonio is home to other rammed earth developments—or, variations of the technique—including the 3050 Eisenhauer apartments designed by Komet Consultants, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center’s MujerArtes studio at its Rinconcito de Esperanza arts complex, constructed in 2016—both of which are located on the West Side. But the home on San Salvador will be the first to use the construction technique for an affordable home.
While previous SAAH projects have focused on building or rehabilitating affordable homes, these prototypes, which are expected to be completed by next spring, will be the first to break into the sphere of sustainable housing.
The homes are targeted for families making up to 80% of the area median income, or AMI, for a family of four. The city says there’s a need for 19,800 single-family homes for household making between 50% and 80% AMI, which is between $37,050 and $59,300 for families of four, respectively.
[ Scroll down for a chart showing AMI levels. ]
SAAH is partnering with Alamo Architects; David Komet of Komet Consultants, a local sustainability consultant who has previously worked with rammed earth; and developer Peter Greenblum on the project, all of whom will be consulting on the project and designing the homes for free.
According to Benavidez, building sustainable housing often comes at a hefty price tag.
“Rammed earth typically can be more expensive, but with the increase in costs for lumber frames it’ll be interesting to see what (the cost) comes out as,” Benavidez said.
The city has approved up to $125,000 to build each unit through its REnewSA program, which targets vacant or neglected properties.
If SAAH does make a profit on the sale—which, according to Benavidez, is “very unlikely”—the money will return to the city’s general fund to be re-invested in future affordable housing projects.
SAAH is also partnering with the city’s offices of Historic Preservation and Sustainability to perform a life-cycle analysis of the homes’ long-term affordability, and determine the actual cost of living in these prototype homes.
The difference between OURSA and SAAH is primarily cosmetic, the two organizations have the same employee—real-estate manager Scott Price—and the same board members (called “commissioners” of OURSA and “directors” of SAAH). The real divide comes in how they operate.
San Antonio Affordable Housing Inc., or SAAH, is the non-profit arm of the Office of Urban Redevelopment of San Antonio, also known as OURSA, the city’s urban renewal agency.
OURSA was founded in 1957 under the name San Antonio Development Agency and has been involved in “24 urban renewal plans and projects” since, according to the city’s website. In 2010, the agency was rebranded as OURSA, whose mission is to “develop and implement strategies to eliminate community slums and blighted areas,” as well as execute housing plans outlined by the city and approved by City Council.
But the types of projects OURSA could adopt were limited under state law. SAAH, which was created in 1995 as the nonprofit extension of the agency, has fewer restrictions with which to operate.
OURSA “is more limiting, it doesn’t give us as much flexibility to create affordable housing,” Jaime Damron, housing bond administrator for NHSD, said.
As long as a project aligns with its mission, SAAH is free to experiment and undertake affordable housing projects. SAAH’s primary mission is to provide single-family homes to families making 120% or less of the area median income. In the last 10 years, SAAH has built or rehabilitated 124 homes, Damron said.
SAAH and OURSA operate primarily in the realm of single-family affordable housing, an intentional decision that they believe is an essential role in a place like San Antonio, where lower-income communities are often underserved in the housing market. In May, the median home price was $282,400, a 17% increase from the previous year, according to the San Antonio Board of Realtors.
“We’re thinking about incremental growth,” Jim Bailey, senior principal at Alamo Architects and community volunteer for the project, said, “preserving neighborhoods and communities in place by rehabilitating our older houses that need modernization, weatherproofing, upgraded appliances, electrical systems, and so forth.”
As Bailey continued, he emphasized the importance of strengthening the fabric of already-existing neighborhoods and building housing appropriate in the context of the community.
“At the end of this exercise,” said Bailey, “what we hope we’ll have is a road map for how we can use our limited bond dollars and resources to stabilize neighborhoods and bring long-term value to the owners and occupants of these structures.”
San Antonio native Maggie Ryan is pursuing a bachelor’s of arts in English Language and Literature/Letters at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. She is interning at the Heron through Students + Startups, a program by the 80/20 Foundation that pairs undergrad students with local companies and nonprofits. She can be reached at email@example.com or @m_rrye on Twitter.