Tiny House Empowerment Village
Berkeley’s First-in-Nation Tiny House Empowerment Village Blossoms—in East Oakland
By Sally Hindman, Seth Wachtel, and Lawrence Grown
In March of 2016, Youth Spirit Artworks hosted a community meeting focused on identifying areas of concern to young people and places to concentrate their organizing efforts. The participants were unhoused youth aged 18 to 25 who were exhausted from sleeping on the shelter floor and frustrated by their circumstances. They saw no end in sight and “affordable housing” was out of reach. Over the course of the discussion, they became inspired by an idea for a better future, an innovative solution to the housing crisis they faced.
In many ways, this encouraging idea is as old as civilization: a set of individual shelters clustered together for a common purpose, creating a mutually supportive community. The youth at that meeting envisioned a village of tiny houses, where every resident would have their own shelter and would support one another in building a life of meaning and dignity.
Motivated by this possible future, these young Berkeleyans began holding meetings every other Wednesday night to realize their goal. They met with city officials, funders, architects, entrepreneurs, and religious leaders. Organizations became inspired by their idea. Coalitions were built. Professionals engaged.
After 200+ meetings, with some 150 young participants of Youth Spirit Artworks, and with the support of more than 45 interfaith East Bay congregations, 20 local businesses, and 23 school and nonprofit partners, engaging approximately 3,000 volunteers over 18 months of meetings and “builds,” this dream became a reality. Youth Spirit’s tiny house Village opened in spring of 2021.
The Tiny House Empowerment Village houses 22 unsheltered Berkeley and Oakland young people (11 from Oakland and 11 from Berkeley) and four Resident Assistants. Young people from the Village are engaged eight hours each week in Youth Spirit’s job training program, setting and reaching personal and vocational goals. Residents also participate in weekly case management with Youth Spirit’s social work team. Village decisions are made at weekly community meetings, and residents volunteer at least three hours per week doing Village chores. Youth may live at the Village for up to two years.
“The opportunity to lay my head on my own bed was the most important thing; it gave me time to think and work on myself,” says Cesar Diaz, a resident of the Village who describes his community as “inspirational” and “life-changing.”
The Village, located on two acres of City of Oakland-owned land adjacent to the Oakland Coliseum, contains 26 tiny houses, two community yurts, and two custom bathroom trailers. The yurts house a kitchen/dining room and a living room/makerspace. More than 100 planters with fruit trees, herbs, vegetables, and flowers enliven the yard with color and fragrance and provide opportunities for residents to cultivate the soil.
Each tiny house is covered by two or more youth-painted murals. There are 150 or more murals total, including 50 that cover the surrounding fence, and an enormous one-acre ground mural, youth-designed and painted. A strawbale welcome center, a medical clinic, and two additional tiny houses for live-work staff will be completed this fall.
Youth Spirit Artworks, founded in Berkeley by Sally Hindman in 2007, is a job training program that uses art as a vehicle for teaching skills to Bay Area unhoused and low-income youth in eight vocational pathway areas toward placement in living-wage jobs.
“They did this!!!” Hindman says enthusiastically, “The youth decided to create this tiny house village. They were engaged in every aspect of the project from start to finish. And they held 200-plus meetings in the process. YSA staff attended and supported them, but as adult allies.”
The Tiny House Empowerment Village model makes use of land lying fallow or in transition so that it can be used for emergency housing on a short-term basis. That encourages nonprofit housing developers and other property owners such as cities and school districts to offer land for temporary use. The City of Oakland made the land for the Village available with a three-year, no-cost, renewable lease.
Construction Director Rolf Bell states, “We are developing affordable housing options at a fraction of traditional costs, because we can assemble houses in three months that can be in place 24 months or 24 years and then easily moved to another location.” Bell, owner of Green Living Builders (a West Berkeley Design Loop member business), is a third-generation Bay Area building contractor and former West Coast Regional Director and Global Village Team Leader for Habitat for Humanity.
The Master Plan for the Village was carried out by architecture professor Seth Wachtel of the University of San Francisco (USF) and students from USF’s Community Architecture program, who worked in collaboration with YSA youth in developing the design. “What is particularly encouraging about the approach we took,” says Wachtel, “is that our goal was to create a sense of place, where a wide variety of social engagements were available, as well as shelter and security.”
This summer, the Tiny House Empowerment Village was featured by the American Institute of Architects, East Bay, in their 2021 Home Tours, which cited the Village’s “innovative design and unique beauty,” and noted that it “serves as a novel model for shelter projects around the country.” Youth Spirit has been contacted by at least ten Bay Area cities as well as advocacy groups around the US and abroad that have expressed interest in replicating the model.
Youth Spirit hopes to develop another tiny house village serving young people in Berkeley.
Photo credits: Youth Spirit Artworks and Lawrence Grown