It takes more than four walls to make a home, but safe and decent affordable housing is the first step, and we’re making a great leap here in Travis County. I spent nearly a decade building the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) here. I was thrilled, therefore, to play supporting actress to leading lady Margaret Gomez, our longest-serving Commissioner. On Tuesday September 14, the Court voted 5-0 to earmark $110 million from the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) to spur development of nearly 2000 homes. ARPA represents the greatest infusion of federal funds into local communities since the height of the Great Society. Commissioner Gomez described seizing this opportunity, which she and I co-sponsored, as the most important action she has taken since she was sworn in in 1995. For me, just nine months into my first term, this investment marks a bold step that will shape our community response to homelessness for decades to come. Yet, in part, I had dreamed it up years ago.
Shortly before I left ECHO in July 2019, Jennifer Hicks and I explored how our local non-profits that provide services to people experiencing homelessness could also develop and manage the housing for folks who need to regain stability in their lives. Jennifer spent 16 years as Director of Housing Finance for Foundation Communities before founding True Casa Consulting four years ago. Jennifer reached out to organizations like Caritas of Austin, Front Steps, SAFE Alliance and Family Eldercare. All were interested but at different locations, and a decision like this would need full support from their volunteer boards of directors.
Meanwhile, Foundation Communities and Mobile Loaves & Fishes Community First Village continued expanding their trusted brand of affordable housing in Travis County, and Caritas was making plans to develop the Espero Apartments. Once I became Commissioner, I continued to check in with Jennifer and the homeless services organizations. In June, I suggested that Travis County invest $50 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to seed supportive housing. My idea seemed to get no traction.
In parallel, over the summer, Commissioner Gomez was inspired to invest heavily in the Burleson Village concept created jointly by Mobile Loaves & Fishes and Foundation Communities. This second Community First Village of tiny houses will also include an apartment building on land donated by Tito Beveridge. These groups wanted $50M, and community advocates like Central Texas Interfaith and the Austin Justice Coalition were calling for us to invest $100M to help rehouse 3000 people in three years.
I thought, if we are going to make that $50M investment, the time is right to invest $100M and spur the other nonprofits into building housing, too. This will give folks who need housing more choices about where to live. I called Jennifer and she responded, “We’re ready. And I need you to meet Conor Kenny with Capital A Housing, part of the Civilitude Group.” Jennifer and Conor had already advanced the concept of non-profits partnering with experienced Travis County developers to build deeply affordable housing. The Travis County Supportive Housing Collaborative was born. By combining affordable units with market-rate housing and using ARPA funds and County and tax abatements, we hope to speed the development process with a goal of completing 1000 tenant move-ins in 2024.
So, the Gomez-Howard team drafted the Travis County Supportive Housing Initiative Pipeline to include:

  • Burleson Village
  • The Supportive Housing Collaborative
  • Foundation Communities to build apartments for homeless families with childrenThe Other Ones Foundation to construct tiny homes at Camp Esperanza

Tying this initiative together are requirement for

  • transparent communication throughout the development process
  • including stakeholders as decisions are made about related service provisions
  • client outcomes tracked to be tracked through the Homeless Management Information System.

This is an opportunity to include more minority-led service providers as we address the over-representation of people of color experiencing homelessness. Two Black-led organizations are included in the Collaborative: A New Entry and the Austin Area Urban League. All the groups that are share a commitment to equity and capacity building. More Travis County community groups are welcome to participate in this work to end homelessness by expanding access to supportive, affordable housing.
Like Commissioner Gomez, I feel that that this is the most significant thing I’ve done as a commissioner, and I’m just getting started!