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Tiny houses in Austin are helping the Homeless, but It Still Takes a Village

A nonprofit brings together a community of volunteers, entrepreneurs, designers, and city leaders to create a permanent housing model for the chronically homeless

On a typical weekday, a visitor to Community First—a village of tiny houses, recreational vehicles, and "canvas-sided" homes (sturdy tents with concrete foundations) populated by formerly homeless people in East Austin—is likely to encounter the following: site preparation for and construction of tiny homes; chickens, goats, and donkeys; the complex's three cats (who require homage, by the way); CEO Alan Graham giving a tour; neighbors' familiar, easy back-and-forth with one another; and friendly people who make time to chat while unloading construction materials, weeding and watering the community garden, and leaving for work from the city bus stop located in the development’s small traffic circle.

The pace is unhurried, and the conversation is congenial and open, everyone managing to do their respective jobs and tasks while maintaining genuine interest in what each has to say.

When one takes in the homey surroundings, pastoral setting, friendly hum of activity, and colorful, mildly eccentric décor, the next thought is often wistful and a smidge envious. Why wouldn’t someone want to live here?

Clockwise from top left: Many of Community First's tiny homes are made of premade notched pieces that are fit together onsite; site orientation and porches are important elements for accommodating the Texas sun; many of the tiny homes are funded by sponsors who "buy" a particular homes in fundraising auctions; the Dogtrot house, an award-winning design from the Tiny Victories contest by Becky Jeanes, Tray Toungate, Laura Shipley and Brianna Nixon of Designtrait.

Graham, one of the four founders of Community First, calls that the "bell-ringing" moment—comparing it to an element of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, the signal that an angel has gotten its wings—common among visitors. "’Hey, man, I want to live here,’" he said in a telephone interview. "That’s the moment we want people to get to."

In an era when the national conversation frequently turns to such issues as income inequality and the collapse of social safety nets but contains little in the way of concrete solutions, a small but dedicated Austin nonprofit called Community First has been quietly building a model for addressing homelessness—one that depends on neither government funding nor the strictures of a particular religious order. Its approach is both both simple and profound—and one that could prove revolutionary.

The ambitious project grew out of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which Graham and four other parishioners at St. John Neumann Catholic Church started in 1998. MLF delivers food to members Austin’s homeless community on the streets, where they live, rather than making them come to a shelter. Graham and fellow participants formed the idea of Community First about 12 years ago. Due to what he refers to as "not in my backyard" issues, however, the group had trouble finding a suitable place to establish the project, and it didn’t break ground until 2014.

Community First residents can rent tiny houses like these for as little as $200/month.

A master-planned development of 27 acres, Community First is modeled on the "Housing First" theory, which The Homeless Hub notes that Sam Tsemberis and Pathways to Housing in New York, as well as some Canadian projects, popularized in the 1990s. The theory holds that the first step in addressing issues that both contribute to and make it difficult to escape from homelessness (drug addiction, joblessness, chronic physical or mental illness, and—one Graham emphasizes—"catastrophic loss of family") is to provide people with homes.

That home has to be more than a temporary shelter, Graham holds; it needs to be reliable, stable, and part of a community—a pleasant, welcoming neighborhood, full of permanent residences. That, in part, is where the tiny houses came in.

While Graham is the driving force that kept Community First on track, it took the enthusiastic involvement of a few high-profile, quintessentially Austin entrepreneurs—not, it should be noted, tech entrepreneurs—to give the place a more directed aesthetic and boost public awareness.

Probably the most prominent local figure to get on board was Tim League, founder of the inimitable, now-nationwide chain of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. League is the kind of hands-on serial philanthropist who donates more than just money to local causes he backs. He has said that, after noting how many homeless people occupied the streets around the Drafthouse’s downtown Austin Ritz location, he embraced Community First’s model as a way to do something about it on an ongoing basis. Among his many contributions, League built an outdoor theater on the grounds to serve as a gathering place that could build community in the form of events that include movies and more.

Graham said the design of KOA campgrounds (Kampgrounds of America, low-cost lodgings for people on the road), which feature a mix of RVs, tent sites, and cabins, inspired his vision for the makeup of Community First. The village started with RVs—"an RV park on steroids," as Graham likes to say, and "the whole idea came out of my family’s experiences in the KOA."

Both League and Graham also liked the style pioneered locally by Liz Lambert, the hotelier who is arguably the godmother of New Austin’s modern-rustic-Western boutique hotel style with her Hotel San Jose and Hotel Saint Cecilia spaces. Lambert has also created lodging spaces in Marfa, Texas—first reinventing Thunderbird Hotel, then turning her attention to El Cosmico, the now-renowned site that mixes tents, yurts, teepees, and decked-out Airstream trailers in a field just outside of town and serves multiple purposes: a night’s lodging, a community gathering and concert space, and a place for structure designers to practice and experiment with their crafts in a collaborative setting.

With its spread-out mix of structural styles and communal spaces, El Cosmico is recognizably a template for Community First, and Lambert consulted with the group on its layout and design—particularly that of the teepees and Airstreams at the front of the complex that will serve as a sort of B&B for visitors to the community.

If a B&B operated at the site of a community of formerly homeless people sounds strange, Graham explained that, while it will be advertised on AirBnB, HomeAway, and the Community First website, "it’s not meant for people who are, say, coming to [the Austin City Limits music festival]. We want people to come in and spend time with us and serve in the community."

As the RV park became populated and the group was ready for the next phase of development, the Tiny Victories design contest came into play. Co-sponsored by Community First and the American Institute of Architects Austin chapter, it challenged local architects to design homes "for our homeless brothers and sisters in need and explore innovative solutions for affordable, efficient housing," according to its site.

The contest winners include architects from some of the most respected firms in town, including SmithKennedy, Designtrait, and Black + Vernooy, firm of local architecture royalty Sinclair Black. Runners up include designers from Page, Dick Clark, and Nelsen Partners. Architects from other noted firms, such as SixthRiver, have since joined in with designs that have been realized at the Community First site.

Clockwise from top left: Alan Finch, Ellis Johnston, and Anthony Young; residents keep chickens and goats as well as tend a large community garden; Geraldo Gonzales; one of Community First's contemplative spaces for residents.

The tiny houses, it should be noted, function essentially as bedrooms and private spaces. While the community’s RVs have bathrooms and kitchens, equivalent spaces for the tiny homes are communal. A large, brand new kitchen and dining space, complete with spiffy outdoor grill, was built for that purpose, as was a community bathroom complex.

The other features of Community First are many, and dreamy for anyone who has a fondness for collective, slightly rural living. In addition to the aforementioned theater, there is a food pantry, large community garden, farm animals including chickens and goats, places for worship and study, a memorial garden and columbarium, beehives, a workshop and tool bank, an art studio gallery, and wifi.

There is also a clinic staffed by volunteer nurses. Each resident gets two caseworkers to help him or her navigate the particulars of moving off the street and into a functioning community. In addition, its Community Works program provides training and opportunities for jobs and earning income, including teaching trades such as forging, providing tools for making art to sell, and temporary-job projects, such as running vending carts during some of Austin's festivals.

Community First currently houses approximately 50 people, in the RVs and tents, and has a capacity for 250, Graham said. After a hugely successful open house that drew more than 3,000 visitors a few weeks ago, along with months of work with residents, the organization will be moving people into its tiny homes this week. Plans to expand the site are already in the works.

That this has been accomplished without tapping into specific governmental or religious programs, Graham said, is a conscious, philosophical choice. While the organization that runs Community First is faith-based and provides numerous opportunities for those so inclined, there is no requirement that residents participate in or adhere to any particular program or religion.

A resident's "canvas-sided house" stands in the foreground of one of winding paths that connect the village. The two-story building in the background is an outdoor cooking and community gathering space.

Moreover, unlike many shelter programs, Community First—due to its underlying philosophy that people need stable homes to move forward in their lives—does not require that its residents be sober or involved in a sobriety program (though it does remind residents that complying with current laws includes the drug-related ones).

What’s required of applicants, more or less, is that they work at a job, pay a small amount of rent ($200-$350/month), comply with the law, and can prove that they have been homeless and lived in the Austin area for at least one year.

While the city of Austin, Travis County, and the Capital Metro public transit system cooperated enthusiastically with the nonprofit in ways private developers no doubt envy—getting utilities to the site, granting development fee waivers, and establishing a bus stop and route that serves the community—Graham and his fellow organizers fall very much into the DIY category when it comes to humanitarian action.

Raising funds privately, said Graham, was a "completely philosophical" decision. "We are basically saying that we can deal with our neighbors in Austin that happen to live on the streets at a local level," he said, "as opposed to abdicating that responsibility to a government that is already stretched as thin as it could possibly be."

Two years after breaking ground, Community First now has a robust board of directors, at least 35 staff members, several corporate partnerships, and hundreds of volunteers. Builders donate homes and materials, either by building them or underwriting. Others are "purchased" by donors to pay for the entire structure. The nonprofit always needs donations, of course, but several have given generously. And, according to Graham, the NIMBY problem seems to have resolved itself once it became clear what the community is.

"Most neighbors are glad we're here," he said. "But of course, you can't make everyone happy."

Graham's friendly but frank personality and dogged pursuit of Community First's goals might have a lot to do with the fact the village and residents have ultimately won over most of the neighbors. It does make one wonder how one might go about starting similar projects in other places, potentially without the benefit of a leader with Graham's outsized energy and personality.

Community First has an answer for that, too. The organization just completed its first three-day symposium and plans to hold them quarterly. To learn what its members have learned in the process of developing the community, said Graham, "my first suggestion would be to get on an airplane and come and spend three days with us."

If you're like most people, you might want to stay.

Community First! [Mobile Loaves and Fishes]

Housing First [Homeless Hub]

Austin's Village of Tiny Houses for the Homeless Is Open, and It's Beautiful [Curbed Austin]

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