By: Darby Kendall
Several images often come to mind when one thinks of tiny houses: an adventurous young couple, minimalists finding their niche, and the picturesque micro-communities featured on HGTV. However, there may be a new humanitarian cause associated with the small housing option, thanks to one Austin non-profit.
Community First! focuses on the way micro-homes can benefit those in need of a residence. Designed to house some of Austin’s chronically homeless, the East Austin 27-acre village was designed by the leaders of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a local non-profit created to feed and serve the homeless using food trucks. Bonnie, one of the first formerly homeless residents at Community First!, says the low-cost housing has changed her life.
“When the opportunity came to be a guinea pig, I said, ‘Do I squeak or oink to say yes?’,” she says. “When everything comes together, this place is gonna rock.”
The East Austin community offers three options for residences, with 100 motorhomes, 20 canvas-sided cottages and 130 tiny houses constructed at publication. The cost of rent depends on which housing option the tenant chooses. The canvas-sided cottages are the most inexpensive option at $220 a month, RVs cost $380 a month, and micro-homes vary from $325 to $365, depending on the size of the house. All housing options come with electricity and are fully furnished.
In order to live at Community First!, an applicant must first be classified as chronically homeless, meaning they must have both a disabling condition and have been continually homeless for a year or more. A disabling condition is defined as “a diagnosable substance abuse disorder, a serious mental illness, developmental disability, or chronic physical illness or disability,” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The coordinated assessments to decide if someone is chronically homeless are conducted by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). After ECHO classifies someone, their information is sent to Community First! for review. According to Thomas Aitchison, the Communications Director for Mobile Loaves & Fishes, if a homeless individual is then approved to move into the village, they just have to follow three basic covenants.
“The first one is: you have to pay rent. We don’t make it through this life without paying rent to someone,” Aitchison says. “The second rule is that you have to follow civil law. In other words, you have to be a law abiding citizen. If you’re doing something that’s illegal, you’re going to be treated just like you would in any other neighborhood– someone can call the cops on you. The third rule is that you have to follow the rules of the community, like an HOA. You can’t drive up in a junkyard car and park it in your front yard.”
Aitchison says the tenants earn the money to pay their rent through several different methods.
“If you have a disabling condition, you’re more than likely receiving a check from the federal government for disability,” Aitchison says. “So they have federal assistance already, and that’s normally $700 a month. On a disability check alone, an individual is able to afford to live out here.”
Residents no longer receiving disability through the government can make and sell products within the community.
“We provide work opportunities that enable our residents to earn a modest living income,” Aitchison says. “That can be done through our art house, or through our blacksmithing shop, or in our gardens.”
Once a formerly homeless resident moves in, they are welcome to stay as long as they like, throughout the rest of their lifetime. Bonnie has no plans to leave anytime soon, and she gladly awaits the day that all of the houses in the community will be filled.
“Can you imagine going from a shoebox, where everything you own is in that shoebox… For a while there, I was doing good to do laundry,” Bonnie says. “Well, imagine going from that to one of those tiny houses.”
Community First! not only only contains RVs and micro-homes, but other amenities as well. An outdoor amphitheater donated by Alamo Drafthouse greets you at the front of the village, alongside a small general store and a health resource center. The community also has a garden, dog park, worship center, chicken coop, and multiple laundry centers and outdoor kitchens for those who live in the micro-homes.
“This place is heaven on Earth… Everybody’s always so impressed,” Bonnie says. “It is well thought out, and it just keeps getting better.”