KOOP 91.7 Austin radio appearance, May 6 2024

friend in Austin, Jim Trainer, invited me on to his monthly current-affairs show "IN THE CITY," on KOOP 91.7 community radio, while I'm here visting. IN THE CITY airs the first Tuesday of the month, part of weekly "Reflections Of Community Outreach" show. 

We discussed the remarkable alternative shelter and housing projects in Austin for the unhoused -- particularly Esperanza Community emergency housing run by The Other Ones Foundation for which Jim is a staff writer, and Community First! Village permanent housing, run by Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

To hear the show, click here to play or download, or click on play button in box below. (30 minutes, 35MB MP3 file). See also transcript further below.


TRANSCRIPT - "IN THE CITY" show, Monday May 6, 2024, on KOOP 91.7 radio, Hornsby (Austin area)


KOOP announcer: 

The views expressed here are not necessarily the views of co op radio, or its board of directors, volunteers, staff or underwriters.

Jim Trainer: 

Tim McCormick is a housing advocate, researcher and project developer based in Portland, Oregon. As director of Housing Alternatives Network he supports various peers and initiatives. He's lead organizer of the Village Collaborative network and editor of wiki housing [HousingWiki]. Tim is the creator of an open-source community book project Village Buildings: West Coast Housing from the Bottom Up, and author of Apology for the Builder, a speculative history on terraced housing from 17th century London to present day for Yimby Press. 

Tim and I met on a tour at the Esperanza Community, which is The Other Ones Foundation's transitional shelter out there, off 183. The Other Ones Foundation's mission is to transition our homeless neighbors into an engaged community through shelter, opportunity and support. And me and my man, you know, we thought along similar lines, so we thought we'd have this conversation today. Welcome to In the city, Tim. 

Thanks, Jim. Thanks so much for having me on.


Yeah, as Jim said, I came out at the end of February from Portland. I basically have been life experimenting and living in alternative, unconventional housing for 10 years and currently live semi-nomadically out of a Prius, and came to Austin at the end of February for the YIMBYtown, Yes In My Backyard, pro-housing conference. 

Also because I've been wanting for years to come here and see a couple of the really interesting, unconventional projects, one of which is Esperanza Community, and another is Community First! Village, which is permanent housing for formerly unhoused just outside city limits. And I have just kept extending my stay because I keep discovering interesting new things to learn about and do. 

we thought that you'd ask me some questions. 

yes, for my researches, you know, I've got some observations of my own, but Jim is working at The Other Ones Foundation as a writer, and so I prepared some questions. 

So number one, what are the types of situations that people are coming to Esperanza community from, what makes it appealing to them and work for them or not? 

Yeah, so the situation is that they're homeless. Simply, you know, I could list the the various circumstances that I've come across, but there's just not enough deeply affordable housing in this town. I could mention mental illness and substance abuse. But what is the difference between me who I struggle with substance abuse and mental illness? Why and my house than someone with the same issues is not? And the answer is the supportive network, right. Some of us are born with it, some of us burn through it. But that that is the situation right, lack of deeply affordable housing and a lack of a supportive network. You've mentioned community first, Alan Graham said that poverty does not come from a lack of money, but from a lack of being loved. 

And then part two of your question, what was part two of your question there? 

What makes it appealing? And work for them or not? 


Yes, I think first of all, the non congregate nature of the shelters, which allows for privacy, right, a locked door, climate control. And then you're talking about dignity. Right. And that's also at play with the workforce first program, that's part of The Other Ones Foundation, giving folks the opportunity to work for money.

Way back when when, when the org did their needs assessment, that was the number one need of folks requested, if you will, to be able to work for money. So that dignity, and also as part of dignity is having a say in their environment, right. So the leadership, the Leadership Council, its community members, you know, who are elected and meet and have a say, and so that that dignity that…


maybe empowerment?

empowerment, right, these kinds of things, these are all part of

the community, right? So I think the nature of the shelters and the culture, the philosophy, the mission, vision and values of the org is, is what appeals to folks.


Yeah. And you said something important, chatting the other day. And that is, there's something about it being authentic, and having built up trust in the community, in the unhoused. community itself, that's a key ingredient. 

Because nobody has to come here, and people can leave. And people out there, on the streets, they tend to have had a lot of bad experiences, be very distrustful. And so you have to build and establish trust and being real. 

If you want people to come in voluntarily and stay there and thrive and move on to where they want to go. 

You have to meet people where they're at. So that's why I kind of curated my answer in such a way because, you know, I could say, well, what, what leads people? What? Why do people need shelter? And I could say, PTSD, but being homeless in itself is traumatic.


Yeah, we maybe could jump onto, what do you think are the optimal preferred or most successful pathways for people to transition onto? from it? Like, what are they wanting to do? Do they know what they want to do? And what what seems to work best? Do you have evidence of what happens in after they leave?

PSH, Permanent Supportive Housing is ideal. 

yeah. PSH is kind of what I would call the gold standard, or you might say, gold-plated official solution promoted officially by the federal government and others, and that is permanent housing, it's clearly defined federally. 

And essentially, it has to be a place where you can stay permanently, as long as you meet sort of basic legal requirements like a tenant would. And also includes supportive services, which could be offered on site or just in other ways.

And so the the issue there is that this, of course, sounds optimal. This also is very expensive. And once people move to it, they, they tend not to move out of it. So in almost every place, there's this defined goal of offering this but but there's far too little of it and too low a rate of creation. 

And also, I think you can raise the question of, should there be this one thing, that officially defined thing, that's, that's the best and correct thing? particularly if it's so expensive, that most places aren't, aren't making it anywhere near the rate of need. 

And that's where the idea of housing alternatives or alternative housing comes in. To say, hey, people are all different, and circumstances are all different. And we can't just simply do nothing, or emergency response, or three quarter million dollar apartments. 

a) that's not going to scale or get us there. At best,  it'll take many years. And it also isn't necessarily what a lot of people want. It generally is conventional looking apartment buildings. And the setup of that does not tend to ensure any particular community, it can often be very isolating. 

Well, rental assistance is just one piece of the puzzle.


Yeah. And so one thing, what I'm hearing is that people at Esperanza community, often they're hoping to get a Section 8 voucher. And that's one pathway. That essentially means something you can take to private landlords, who have to choose to accept you, but once they do, essentially, the government pays the difference between what the resident can pay and the rent. 

Well, another point you hit is that there's not one size fits all. Just to house someone and say good luck, you know, it's essentially like, how this country operates in the world. 

You know, if you consider that being poor in America, in this country is like surviving a war, right? So the, you know, the traumatic experience of survival, and then to adjust, right to get back to get streamlined, you know, the so I think your point that the it's not one size fits all, I think you're right about that. 

Yeah. And the problem is that it's a huge country, it's a huge problem. And a lot of things are set from the top down where the money comes from. And to some extent they have to do one-size-fits-all because they're writing laws and regulations and programs for the whole country. 

And a big issue is what you could say the issue of, what gets measured gets managed, right? And what there is data on is very patchy. 

In general, we don't know that much about what people's background are. What gets measured particularly is what they call 'exits' from homelessness. And so because that's the thing, that is one of the main things, that's officially collected, or tried to, everything gets managed to that.

okay, so you've got someone in a shelter or something, and you make a referral to them to some program. Well, at that point, you get to check a box and say, like they made an "exit", but there may be little to no follow up at all to see if that worked out, or how long they stayed there. 

And of course, in terms of looking at from a person-centered perspective, what matters is whether it was a good fit, and sustained; and we tend to just have little data on that. Unfortunately, this creates perverse incentives. 

that's a good term, person-centered. 

Yeah, there's something specific I have in mind there. And that is, the meaning of it within psychology. There was a movement, termed humanistic psychology, it was kind of a mid-20th century counter-reaction against psychoanalysis. It called for a big reorientation towards, rather than viewing people as pathological and having deficits, as just having challenges and goals, which we seek to enable. 

And so, for example, you might say that the prevailing official philosophy of Housing First, which is that everything must begin with housing placement…while there are arguments for it, it's quite contrasting with "person-centered" because it doesn't start with asking the person what they particularly need to focus on or are seeking. 

Like, for example, I personally live nomadically. And that works very well for me for what I want to do in life. It's obviously not for everybody, but my way of living and thinking is rooted in, what is it that I or somebody else wants and needs and aspires to? Not, what does an official program assume they need. 

Moving on a question I'm especially interested in, because I travel about and I'm looking at things, there's lots of interesting things, budding everywhere. So this question is, how possible do you think it is to to expand or branch or replicate Esperanza Community? Could there be multiple such communities around Austin, applying models? Could they be built into new new parts of town that are developing? And how might that happen? 

Well, Esperanza is is a transitional shelter. So it's, it's like a triage situation. So, you know, replicating it is like, how widespread Do you want the problem to be?

As far as getting land, there's there are DOTs [Departments of Transporation] nationwide sitting on much land, there's government entities… The philosophy, the culture of dignity and person-centered care --w ell, that that certainly can and should be replicated. But I think any employee, at The Other Ones, you know, their best day is when it doesn't need to exist anymore. Right? 

Well, I think that we're far from that problem of having no work to do.

Jim: Right. And well, I mean, the no work would come from that there aren't people who don't have homes. 


Yeah, I mean, what we're talking about is such vast scale,  structural problems of essentially a society that fails… 


On a small scale. Yeah. Yeah, can be replicated. 

You mentioned TXDOT [Texas Department of Transportation], there and might be a good moment to loop in.

Part of the reason Esperanza community is so unique, and intriguing to me, it has a quite unusual origin story. It's a collaboration essentially, with TxDOT. And as you say, they have tons of land all over the state and, and the equivalent things do in other states. And so that's a point where there's potentially very wide scalability. 

Part of it is that they're already dealing with the problem. There already are people on their land. It's like how, not if, they're going to manage the fact of, of there being camping on these properties. 

And this was a case where something began in in kind of an accidental way, but evolved into something really positive, even a model and exemplar. Of how you can take a really broken down, ad hoc situation that was not very safe or anything, and kind of evolve it into a really much more resident-driven, humane and inspiring community that's working for people. 

I'm really glad to hear you say that, because yeah, it was like, well, there was a lot of like, miraculous, you know, once in a lifetime things to happen. But one very real miracle is that, you know, maybe politically opposed factions coming together for a good result. You know, yeah. 

the expression has come up, that politics makes strange bedfellows, right, which is an allusion to, the original line in Shakespeare is misery makes strange bedfellows. Both apply in this case, right? Yeah. 

Jim and I actually attended the book talk for Megan Kimble's book [City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality, and the Future of America's Highways] that just came out, that's about freeway expansion and how it's this kind of Leviathan. 

And we actually kind of come in with this unusual angle of, something strangely good coming out of that. The operations of TxDOT kind of like opened up this space, and they were actually adaptable and willing, and now they're leasing [to The Other Ones Foundation] this big area for $1 or something. And they've also now acquired a big adjoining property to double, go to what 400 units, right? So yeah, the camp is getting ready to quadruple, which would make it..

so two points. One, that would make it among the largest such projects anywhere in the country. There's lots of projects in the country that are small shelters like this, but they're only five to 10 people. And also, this might be a good moment to say it's also coming to the scale of Community First! Village. 

that's a great segue

It leads into the question, how do these two projects compare and relate? they do actually work together and their leaders know each other? 


We should say that for on the other side of the break, we'll be right back. I'm here with Tim McCormick, founder of Housing Alternatives Network. KOOP HD one HD three Hornsby.

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Welcome back to In The City. We're here with Tim McCormick, founder of Housing Alternatives Network. So we were talking about, you know, non-traditional housing and much of our conversation was focused on Esperanza Community and Community first! Village.

What do you think is extraordinary about Esperanza? 


Well, the origin of it, as I was just saying a little bit ago about how it flowered out of this really fraught and accidental situation, of people just essentially being displaced into a barren area of asphalt, that was kind of like a road utility maintenance site. And that's extraordinary. 

I would say there are remarkable personalities involved. Chris Baker [Executive Director of The Other Ones Foundation] I think is an amazing figure. He's very inspiring and energizing listen to. He says it himself, he says, Hey, I'm like a punk rock anarchist, who stumbled into this. But he's charismatic, and he forms unusual connections. And he's very down to earth and no BS. And it gets through to people in all kinds of ways. So he's befriended and has a whole network of people in TXDOT, right? Unlikely companions, but they're getting stuff done.

That's a sharp contrast to what I see in many places, which is super polarization. And people who are so far apart, they're not speaking to each other, not thinking in the same terms. And that while the unhoused suffer and die on the streets. 

So in a sense, there's something very refreshingly non-ideological about it.

Also, it's a remarkable combination of what's a super top-down governmental power -- I mean, the Governor appoints commissioners who run TxDOT, and it's like $100 billion budget operation. But at the same time, they're collaborating with a truly grassroots, authentic thing. And you sense that going out there. You know: it's real, it's human. You know, this is not just a top-down thing. There's real community there, you feel it right away. That's extraordinary. 

It's extraordinary, the scale that it's planning to grow to, it's currently at 100 units, it's just in the process of next phase, adding a second 100. And when I say units, that's a cold term, we could probably say cabins would be a good word. And they're essentially, tiny houses that are, I think they haverunning water and electricity, but not a bathroom or kitchen in them, although they're at least exploring the idea of units with more facilities. 

So they're using the other half of the site in the next phase to go to 200. And TxDOT has just acquired the adjoining parcel of land to essentially double again to 400 units. One cabin could have more than one person in it, but doesn't typically. So it's actually kind of on a scale and trajectory towards the scale of need in Austin, more so than most places. So that's extraordinary. 

I think also, it's interesting that they're allied with and working together with another highly innovative program, that is permanent housing, which is what everyone talks about as the as the Nirvana to get to, but is largely just not they're not in the offing most places, but here we have Community First! Village, which is offering permanent housing. And again, it's village-like, it uses this term village. It's kind of going a step further. 

So cabins there are larger, more permanent. They're classified as permanent housing, not as emergency shelter, or emergency housing is the term Chris prefers to use. 

And so what you will see here, in successful and thriving operation, is this spectrum of pathways being reconstructed, that's just missing in most places. arange of things from immediate, sub-$10,000 per accommodation, things that are on publicly available, rented for free land, going up in the hundreds, but with clear pathway to vouchers and to unusual, unconventional, long-term affordable housing at Community First. 

So to me, it's among the most remarkable environments to to observe this unfolding. 

Can you say more about how it specifically compares to other projects you've come across in your travels? 

Well, sure. So this is a huge national set of problems. So there's all kinds of things going on. And what you have, at least if the conversation is centered around concepts of homelessness, you typically have a bifurcation into ideas of shelter, and then separated from things that are termed permanent housing. 

And the general notion in most places is like, the answer is housing, permanent housing, which is this kind of abstract category understood to mean conventional buildings generally. And there's some pace at which those might be happening. with some federal funding, maybe states and cities are stepping in, but they're generally very costly, happening very slowly. And in most places, just not at all: most suburban and small places are not creating that at all.

Then what you have is kind of emergency, reactive efforts, which blossomed, particularly in the COVID era, with a lot of Federal stimulus, ARP Act funding, that helped it blossom. So you see all over the country, kind of the blossoming of these short-term camps with small shelter structures, which in my opinion, may be better than nothing, they tend to not in themselves have any pathway anywhere, and they soak up a lot of money. 

My view is like, well, let's look at the places that are being more creative and imaginative. And thinking about how do we how are we opening up avenues of things that turn into permanence, or how do have transition paths and sort of rebuild a continuum, so there isn't like emergency shelter, and then an abyss, where you go into the waiting list that might be a decade long to hope to get somewhere?

That doesn't work. You know, humans, everyone needs a place to go. 

So it's quite unusual that you have this more complete spectrum. And then these things that are that are alternative and are filling the gaps are thriving and expanding on this scale, to the point where you could plausibly say, Yeah, I could really see how this would add up to a system, 

I should say that Austin did pass some quite substantial funding and has a pipeline of many 1000s of Permanent Supportive Housing. But of course they're taking years. And in the meantime, there's an inflow of people. So they're kind of always behind the curve. 

One view, of course, is well, we just need to do more of that and scale up that funding. That could be the answer. But I, my hunch says no, that will kind of never catch up, and never be fast enough. And never be low cost enough to broadly reach the need. 

What we need is essentially a lot more low cost housing. And gold-plated housing can't be the only only answer in that spectrum. 


Why don't you tell us about what exactly is a community book project? [i.e. Village Buildings book].


Yeah, good question. So what happened is a friend of mine, Andrew Heben, in 2014, he came out with a book called Tent City urbanism, that is sort of drawing on his thesis work, and then his work, he was just at that time starting what's called Square One Villages co founding.  Which actually began with Occupy movement, Occupy Wall Street, in Eugene, where like in many places, a camp grew up. And so it developed into a nonprofit now offering cooperative housing. 

So he wrote this book in 2014, Tent City Urbanism, which I think is a landmark. And then almost within a year or two of that people started saying, Oh, well, gosh, these projects have been evolving, so you know, what's the follow up? Can we write an appendix? 

So this idea has been floating around with me and others, and initially, I was just throwing it out to many people to kind of be like, Alright, can we have the online extension of this, that shows how this has evolved? And that didn't particularly take form but I just kind of kept nurturing it over the years. So it's emerged as this online container with a kind of thematic skeleton of ideas that, that I invite people to contribute or add things to or [draw from], and also a place that I can put explorations and photo albums etc.. And it gradually sort of forms into a more, more complete set of materials. 

And the idea has emerged as well… we talk about creating more organic, community driven, person-centered living situations; what might be a publishing equivalent of that? like, what's the publishing equivalent of a village? Well, it's open, it's organic, it's incremental


I love that mentally. I love when art just takes on a meta. Yeah, like the medium becomes the message. We're gonna take a quick break, and we're going to come back and wrap things up with Tim McCormick, founder of Housing Alternatives Network. Keep it here.

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Welcome back to In the city. We're here with Tim McCormick, founder of Housing Alternatives Network, and vehicle resident. Tim, how do you make it out here? How you making money?

Unknown Speaker  26:29  

Good question. So my main paying gig that's paying the bills these days is I have a position as Contributor writer at Sightline Institute, which is a Seattle and Portland based sustainability think tank.

I've known the housing and cities editor there for many years and talked a lot. And so he's recognized that I have a kind of living expertise in alternative and from-the-bottom-up housing. And so they commission stories on this kind of thing. 

So it looks like -- knock on wood -- a happy confluence may be emerging where my traveling about and being observant and responsive to what I see, and following these threads of interest actually helps generate stories that are valued by a think-tank kind of publication, tht wants to bring this to a wider audience and is willing to pay me a livable income to do that.

Living the dream. So what's next for you? 

Well, it's blessedly open-ended for me, and I give thanks every day that I have that freedom. And so I could today answer a call and drive back to Portland.

Usually, I have typically sort of three or four things cooking… potential major projects or income. I have sort of a pipeline of article topics for Sightline. I'm working on a story about the opportunities for faith organizations in housing, which is another bubbling area -- for affordable housing and also innovative approaches. I am probably going to pitch a story about Esperanza Community and Community First! Village, and perhaps contrasting that to the lack of such things in Portland, for example.

I also have an involvement with a digital communities network called Cabin.city that's oriented towards alternative housing, but in a very different demographic of kind of digital nomads and creators. And I'm developing a proposal for them for kind of an art and architecture installation, applying some of my ideas about flexible alternative housing. So if that comes through, potentially I could be funded for a residency at their Hill Country, Texas location and/or the one outside Portland, to develop a prototype connector foundation for movable housing to move on to.

And, well, ideas are always budding out. I went on Friday to the open house at the amazing Center for Maximum Potential Building [Systems] and had interesting conversation with them about potentially being an intern or doing an exploratory project with them. So, wide open roads in a way. 

Glad to hear it. Thanks for joining us today and do keep in touch. 

Tim: Thank you, Jim.