The tiny city of Apalachicola, Fla., is well known in preservationist circles for its abundance of restored 19th-century buildings, but when it comes to affordable housing, the Gulf Coast community comes up short.
“Twenty-eight percent of the population in Franklin County pays 40 percent of its income for housing,” said Jeffrey Sharkey, a political consultant from Tallahassee, Fla.
Mr. Sharkey is one of the investors in Denton Cove, a proposed multifamily housing development that has divided the community and prompted a discussion about whether the city’s housing problem should be solved with new homes or the historic ones that are its legacy.
Denton Cove would be a 52-unit cluster of town homes built on the site of a decommissioned high school and paid for through the sale of Housing and Urban Development low-income tax credits.
“It would have been the only $10 million residential development in the city in the previous 30 years,” Mr. Sharkey said.
But residents of Apalachicola, population 2,340, challenged the plan at meetings of the city’s planning and zoning commission. They “didn’t want ‘those people’ living there,” Mr. Sharkey said.
But this is no “not-in-my-backyard-story,” according to Willoughby Marshall, an architect who lives with his wife in his childhood home.
“Mostly, we’re interested in history here,” Mr. Marshall said. “We’re not so interested in development because that’s not in keeping with the nature of the town.”
The Marshalls and others are endorsing a local plan to train job-seeking residents in home construction through the rehabilitation of abandoned, working-class cottages known as shotgun homes. There are dozens of them in an Apalachicola district called the Hill, where black fishermen and mill workers have lived for more than a century.
The shotguns are historically significant because they are among the first examples of African architecture in the United States.
“The original affordable housing here was the shotgun,” said Creighton Brown, a recent transplant from New York who devised the plan.
Mr. Brown, a contractor specializing in historic structures, worked with a nonprofit housing developer in New Orleans to survey and map abandoned shotguns that could be restored to habitability.
Bernard Simmons, a lifelong Hill resident who is a musician, lives in a shotgun that has been in his family for generations.
“It’s a piece of history,” he said. “It speaks of my history, my ancestors. I feel their spirits in this house.”
While Mr. Simmons’s home is a comfortable balance of old and new, others in the neighborhood are not as well tended.
“Every block has three or four homes that are livable and the rest are abandoned,” said Elinor Mount-Simmons, the president of the Hillside Organization of Laborers for Apalachicola, a community group. “It would be great if the Hill could come alive again as it once was.”
Even so, Ms. Mount-Simmons is not enthusiastic about the Brown program, which is sometimes referred to as Save Our Shotguns. Too many details remain unclear, she said.
The Denton Cove plan, by contrast, was outlined in thick contracts and bank documents as required by law. The town homes would have energy efficient appliances, a pool and a fitness center. But the development was not for people with moderate incomes, as some residents had originally been told. The county’s depressed earnings meant only the poorest would qualify to live there.
Concentrating the poor in one project was not a modern approach, said Bonnie Davis, a retired lawyer who moved to Apalachicola from Tallahassee. She and others embraced the idea that Apalachicola’s architectural past might guide the future as it had in cities like Louisville, Ky., and New Orleans, where shotgun restoration programs have been underway for years.
“When all this brouhaha came up, I, the Browns, many people said, ‘We have to be about more than no,’” Ms. Davis said.
In addition to training the local labor force in construction, Mr. Brown’s plan had a financing component. Because 33 of the lots have more than one home on them, the purchaser would buy one home to live in and a second income-producing rental unit to help pay the mortgage. But speed was important.
The tiny-house movement, combined with relatively low real estate prices on the Hill, has already caught the attention of people like Pete Olson of Connecticut. He is finishing up work on a 450-square-foot one-bedroom shotgun where he plans to live with his wife.
Twenty years ago, Anthony Pierce, 57, a lifelong Apalachicola resident, bought four shotguns to restore and rent. Just preventing further deterioration by shoring up the foundation was a big effort, and after taking a job in Tallahassee, Mr. Pierce said he ran out of energy.
What neither he nor Mr. Brown realized about restoring the shotguns was that a 1970s-era zoning change had imposed larger lot requirements on Hill homes if they became unoccupied for longer than six months.
“The zoning effectively made the revitalization of this neighborhood impossible” for anyone who could not pay cash, said Carey Shea, the executive director at Project Home Again in New Orleans, the nonprofit housing developer, who had worked with Mr. Brown. If the program’s beneficiaries could not get mortgages, Ms. Shea said, her company would have withdrawn from the project, despite her feeling that it has benefits over Denton Cove’s more traditional plan.
Ms. Shea said the job-training and home-ownership components would result in “a revitalized neighborhood, affordable housing and job creation.”
Mr. Brown says he is lobbying to modify the zoning restrictions that impede the shotgun project.
“There are 100 historic houses that are empty,” waiting for low- and moderate-income Apalachicolans to live in them, he said.
The homes have been researched and mapped by Pam Richardson, one of several residents working on a monthlong art festival and tour of the shotguns in April. The festival should show that “restoring them is a much better prospect than concentrating poverty in one spot,” Mr. Brown said.
This was the argument against the Denton Cove project. But Mr. Sharkey sees the residents’ resistance as perpetuating racial segregation in a city where century-and-a-half-old opulent homes can be found on tree-shaded streets on the south side, while the north side’s historic homes are deteriorating.
In December, Denton Cove L.L.C. settled a lawsuit it had filed against Apalachicola claiming fair housing violations and reneging on the sale of the high school property. The inauguration of President Trump dampened the market for the sale of tax credits on which the project is reliant, so investors have not decided whether it is profitable to continue the multifamily project.
“If somebody wants to come along and build single-family homes,” Mr. Sharkey said of the Brown proposal, “God bless them.”