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Community First! Village Neighbors Find Security in Thoughtfully-Designed Microhomes

How the nonprofit welcomes formerly homeless Austinities to homes personalized to their preferences and interests

Fifty-one acres of creative, thoughtful inclusive structures sit in Central East Austin as a welcome and safe place for up to 300 Community First! Village neighbors. Mobile Loaves and Fishes (MLF) created the village in 2014, opening doors for formerly homeless people to have their own microhomes — each designed with care and a standard four walls that aren’t taken for granted.

“There’s an emotional component in the designs,” says Sarah Saterlee, Director of Architecture and Site Development for MLF. “The structure of the home is something people can latch on to — especially if they haven’t had a place of their own for a really long time — or maybe even their entire lives.”

The village aims to help those most vulnerable in Austin and curb a growing problem. In 2021 the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) estimated 3,160 people are experiencing homelessness in Travis County. Additional statistics indicate around 70% of the homeless live with a disability and 41% of homeless are domestic violence survivors.

Efficiently utilizing 200 square feet, the one-room homes include a bed and a small kitchenette with a crockpot, microwave, coffee maker and a mini fridge. Not individually plumbed, neighbors share nearby community kitchens and bathrooms.

An application and brief interview process help new neighbors get started in planting roots in the community. Once someone has sat down with them and gone over their budget, the neighbors then select which home they’d like. Location within the community is often a deciding factor. But oftentimes, it’s something involving the home’s design, in many cases something as simple as the color of the door.

When it’s time to move-in, a hospitable and well-prepared interior is key to unlocking the door to a stronger future. In some cases, it’s the simplest elements that might provide the warmest welcome. Fully furnished with linens, a stocked pantry and a stocked fridge — the setup allows new neighbors the comfort of not having to leave their new lodgings for at least a week.

“There are a lot of ‘mental gymnastics’ to adjust from being in the woods or another open space to having your own four walls,” says Saterlee. “In many cases, people sleep on the floor the first week because they can’t wrap their brain around having a bed.”

Thoughtfully selected and personalized interiors are prepared by a dedicated move-in team. Surveys and questionnaires help the team learn more about residents’ favorite colors and hobbies so those can be incorporated into bedding and wall art.

The village also features tons of community spaces, including an outdoor theater and human-size chess board.

Creating an environment of beauty and inspiration that’s enjoyable and welcoming for the entire Austin community is also important to MLF team members.

Airbnb options, including the opportunity to rent a teepee, are available through the Community Inn. An Alamo Drafthouse outdoor theatre hosts movies on Friday and Saturday nights, along with neighbor karaoke parties.

One trademark element of the village’s interior existed before MLF purchased the land for the village. The Genesis Gardens allow neighbors a chance to be employed and earn dignified income, as they supervise volunteers who regularly help pick vegetables or plant new seeds.

“It’s a chance to get out there, be hands on, and develop a relationship with someone who is maybe very different from you,” says Saterlee.

The community’s vision is constantly expanding. Phase two of the village will be fully complete mid-2022 with a total of 550 homes. Planning for phases three and four is also underway, with an eventual 1,800 sustainable, durable homes that will hopefully continue to hold up over time, offering legacy, meaningful impact and stories of resilience for generations of Austinites to come.