shotgun-style house while visiting and exploring Memphis a few years ago. Such exceedingly modest homes on small lots are abundant throughout the American south, with entire neighborhoods in some cities lined with little other than shotgun houses. This particular structure was built around 1920 and is just less than 800 square feet. Originally it must have been even smaller, as changing foundation material, window sizes and siding toward the rear betray an addition now comprising about one quarter of the house.
This is not intended as a foray into Southern architecture, however, but as an observation that, in that not-so-distant past, the private real estate market did in fact produce large quantities of low-cost housing for poor and working-class Americans. The house pictured was not constructed for wealthy or middle-income persons of the 1920s, as their choice (at least in the south) was largely the bungalow or the foursquare. Thus, shotgun houses were "affordable," so to speak, from the moment they were built.
While I do not know who built it and by what financial arrangement, whether it was intended for sale or as a rental, nor do I know the circumstances of the first occupant, the presence of the house in an age before inclusionary zoning, rent control, and, indeed, widely accessible residential mortgage lending, testifies to the fact that the market at the time was capable of supplying reasonably decent accomodation to persons of limited means.
Sometime between 1920 and 1950, construction of housing of this type and cost virtually ceased. Today, memory of the earlier past has been so thoroughly forgotten that it is not uncommon to hear stated as fact that the United States always had an affordable housing problem, or that the free market is inherently incapable of providing housing affordable to the poor. For those who acknowledge the change, the culprits named responsible have been almost too numerous to mention: the emergence of zoning and other constraints on use of land; urban renewal; mass development of public housing; increased costs for labor and materials; new building codes and regulations; the decline of manufacturing, and many more. In a a subsequent post, I'll take a closer look at some of these explanations.