University of San Francisco architecture students are working in partnership with community organizations to create emergency housing in the form of tiny house villages for unhoused youth in Richmond, California.
The project is part of Architecture & Community Design Program Director Seth Wachtel’s senior architecture capstone class, Community Design Outreach, where students collaborate with Tiny Village Spirit and the Richmond Police Activities league.
As reported in the East Bay Times, Richmond has the largest population of unhoused individuals in Contra Costa County, which is the ninth most populous county in the state. Tiny house villages are an emerging concept used to combat homelessness. They consist of multiple 100-400 square foot homes that serve as shelters for unhoused folks. They are built in a neighborhood design and are often paired with social support services.
The capstone class was created in 2007 and was described by Wachtel in a statement to the Foghorn as a “real-world architecture studio for the first cohort of architecture seniors.” Wachtel said in previous years, students in the capstone have designed health clinics, orphanages, libraries, community gardens and more. This is the second tiny house village USF’s architecture cohort has worked on, with the previous project being the Youth Spirit Artworks tiny house village based in Oakland in 2018. During the Oakland project, they built and housed 24 formerly homeless youth between the ages of 18-24 years of age.
This year, the capstone class is working with Tiny Village Spirit to create housing in Richmond. The project is currently pending approval from the city. In the meantime, students have taken a trip to the site and begun work on the design process. USF alumni Acasio Kouromenos, BA ‘23, said he is working to ensure that everything is up to code with city regulations.
Tiny Village Spirit Executive Director Sally Hindman said the ultimate goal of their organization is to help unhoused individuals find permanent housing. There are currently over 170,000 unhoused residents in California.
Hindman explained that Tiny Village Spirit works to place the perspective of unhoused youth at the forefront of their mission. “We are all about emergency housing being owned by the people being served, that the process of creating the housing is in the hands of folks who will ultimately live there,” she said. “Their voice being a primary one is just super fundamental, but we’re trying to provide opportunities for communities to work together with unhoused folks in alliance.”
Hindman said of her experience working with unhoused youth, “I’m just continually impacted by their views, their wisdom, their power and their resilience. There’s so many people that are on the street that are brilliant, wise, amazing people. And I learn from folks that we work with every day.”
According to Wachtel, the goal of the most current housing project is “to expand access to housing and to work to scale solutions by learning from the successes and challenges from the first effort,” he said. “Central to this capstone CEL [community engaged learning] course is identifying projects that directly address the serious challenges facing local and international communities.”
Students are given the opportunity to choose five projects out of the eight they are offered. Three options are local in scale and five are international.
Students selected the Richmond project for a number of different reasons. For senior architecture major Erica Vacca, part of the project’s appeal came from its measurable impact. “I was initially drawn to this project because of the possible, tangible, real-world effects my contributions could have, especially in regards to the possibly positive effects of integrating agriculture and gardening into a neighborhood.” She said, “After meeting the community leaders of the project, their enthusiasm and excitement to be working with us really inspired me to take a vested interest in this project.”
For Kouromenos, being a Bay Area Native sparked his interest in the project. “Growing up in an area like Berkeley, I would see homelessness impact many of my peers, so I was always motivated to help in some sort of way.” He continued, “The project was introduced to me by Seth Wachtel and I was very interested as it would be the first tiny house emergency shelter for adolescent homeless in Richmond.”
The individual homes for the youth are predesigned and the site has been determined by the clients, according to Vacca, who described the role of students in the project as to “take all of the existing ideas the clients have — the houses, the farm and garden, and integration of nature and community — and thread them all together on site, filling in all the gaps and designing all the elements of the neighborhood that could help foster a comfortable, fulfilling, living environment.”
This includes, but is not limited to creating privacy and sound barriers for the residents from the nearby streets, designing landscape, adding patios to the homes as well as “anything else we can think of that may contribute to a warm, welcoming, and homey environment,” said Vacca.
Dariana Willis, a senior architecture major, explained what her involvement in the project looks like. “I am currently working on looking at ADA accessibility throughout the site, the layouts of the kitchen and gathering space, and playing around with possible trellis designs,” she said.
Senior architecture major Vincent Collado said his involvement includes “landscape design — implementing sustainable and conservation methods to the housing units and community garden.”
As for why students should get involved in this project in the future, Wachtel said, “There is a crucial relationship between practical learning and mindful application, and learning facts and creating a better world. Enlightened architecture can contribute to improving conditions for people and natural environments,” he continued. “That is our focus in the USF Architecture Outreach courses, where through community-engaged learning, students fulfill the USF vision of ‘developing leaders who will fashion a more humane and just world.’”
As far as when the project will be ready for housing residents, Wachtel said they are aiming for the first residents to move in by December 2024.