Self-sustaining housing facilities could be constructed in San Marcos by 2015

News Reporter

Officials at the San Marcos Housing Authority may be collaborating with Texas State’s Department of Agriculture to implement a new type of self-sufficient housing facilities that would allow residents to grow their own organic food.

The housing facility design, called Hortaqua, is an urban farming system that employs a combination of aquaponics and horticulture, said Gene Martin, resident services director for the San Marcos Housing Authority.

“It’s kind of a collaboration between us, the City of San Marcos, the local school district and Texas State University,” Martin said. “I’m really proud of the way things are coming together, with so many members of the community getting involved with it.”

The system will be piloted at Chapultepec Homes, an apartment community that is part of the Family Self-Sufficiency program. The program was enacted by Congress in 1990 to promote employment and assist families participating in federal housing programs, Martin said.

“It’s an enclosed system that looks like a greenhouse, but inside it’s a complete ecosystem where the fish provide nutrients to the plant and the plant filters the water,” Martin said. “The difference between traditional aquaponics and Hortaqua is that in this case there’s also earthworm-based soil, and you can grow all kinds of things in it.”

This arrangement results in high-yielding crops in a very small space, said Will Richardson, director of Hortaqua Corporation in San Marcos, which builds the systems used in the facilities.

“If we can all but eliminate (low income residents’) food costs, that’s essentially freeing up a third of their money for other purposes,” Richardson said.

Residents would grow their own food under the supervision of agricultural students from Texas State, Richardson said.

Jaime Chahin, dean of the College of Applied Arts, said the opportunity to work on the project would be an “excellent” experience for students.

“They would fund the project and basically hire our students to work with them,” Chahin said. “We have students interested from nutritional, social, agricultural and water resource perspectives.”

A Hortaqua-based food source would safeguard participants from sustenance insecurity, increase their self-sufficiency and improve their health through superior nutrition, Richardson said.  

“Once the system is up and running, there’s really not a lot of maintenance needed,” Martin said. “It mainly involves making sure the temperatures are correct and removing unwanted insects.”

Richardson said he plans for the Hortaqua system built in one of the San Marcos apartment communities to serve as a model for what can be done for public housing projects throughout the U.S.

“We’re hoping that this is a project that can be replicated at a larger scale and also a smaller scale,” Martin said. “As far as I know, there are no other communities doing anything like this.”

Martin said they hope to fund the project through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money they applied for through the City of San Marcos.

“We asked for $48,410,” Martin said. “It’s a good chunk of money, but it’s not an insurmountable amount of money to do the kind of collaborative project we’re wanting to do.”

Housing Authority officials will not know whether they have been approved for the CDBG funding until late next month, but they are open to exploring alternative methods of funding if the city council does not award them the grant money, Martin said.

Once they obtain funds, the next steps will be to have the contract executed and the design approved and go through a bidding process, Martin said.

Construction on the Hortaqua system would be completed by April 2015 according to the timeline the Housing Authority submitted with its grant application, Martin said.