Veteran and Former Truck Driver Excited about the “Long Haul” at Zilker Studios

June 23, 2023 | Posted in Housing, Affordable Housing |

In the Zilker Studios community room, Johnnie Miller inspects the spread at the Healthy Food Pantry, all free for the taking.

“Tomatoes , strawberries, sourdough breads… things that I can’t afford living on a budget,” said Johnnie. “I’m trying to save money and it’s so hard these days to save money. If somebody don’t want it, I’ll be happy to eat if for you.”

Johnnie was one of the first residents to move into the beautiful seven-story supportive housing community on South Lamar. In total, staff at Zilker Studios will welcome home 110 residents, many of whom have experienced homelessness.

Johnnie is one such resident. The veteran, former horse trainer and truck driver broke his back during a delivery in 2019, which left him unable to work. Then in 2020, the relative he was sharing a duplex apartment with in Georgetown died from COVID-19. Johnnie couldn’t pay the rent alone and after several months of notices, his landlord evicted him. He lived in his car for two weeks in a Walmart parking lot before moving into a motel with help from a church. Johnnie did find a temporary home in a home owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the VA also helped him get approved for an apartment at Zilker Studios.

Johnny moved in in late May. He was greeted with a new bed and a Welcome Home Basket that contained kitchen utensils, all of which he needed. “It’s just joy, joy, joy, said Johnnie about his new studio apartment. “Just having your own place where you don’t have to clean up anyone else’s mess.”

Johnnie Miller is thoroughly enjoying his new community. Partially paralyzed from the back injury, he especially likes the exercise room where Program Manager Norman Thompson lets him work out at his own pace. He’s also a regular at Lady Bird Gardens and is looking forward to rafting on the Lake and swimming in Barton Springs Pool.

Protected: Immigrant Family Finds Safety, Stability through Foundation Communities Affordable Housing

September 25, 2023 | Posted in Housing, Education, Financial Stability, Uncategorized |

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Protected: Prosper Benefits Assistance Program Helping Central Texans Dropped from Medicaid

September 25, 2023 | Posted in Uncategorized |

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Building Zilker Studios: Seizing Opportunities, Overcoming Challenges

July 18, 2023 | Posted in Green Building, Affordable Housing, Housing, Uncategorized |

For Foundation Communities, building Zilker Studios was truly a “no-brainer.” It’s located on a half-acre of land that was donated by C12 Capital, the developer of The Loren at Lady Bird hotel at South Lamar and Riverside. It’s in a busy corridor that can easily connect residents living on low incomes with public transit, jobs, retail parks, health care and quick access to downtown. It did, however, take a great deal of ingenuity, hard work and cooperation to make this beautiful, supportive housing community a reality. 

Since Zilker Studios had to be built on just a half-acre of land, that meant to create the desired number of affordable studio apartments, Foundation Communities had to build higher than it ever has before – seven stories. The land also included two heritage live oak trees which Foundation Communities and the design and construction teams wanted to preserve. The building had to be situated between the two trees, so Forge Craft Architecture + Design conceived a vision of a hammock between the trees. Using the space between them as a nexus point, the building is split into two halves. A connecting breezeway acts as the hammock – a place where residents can experience both trees at once and feel removed from the busy streetscape along South Lamar.

 Another construction challenge was Planet K’s Wall of Fame adjacent to the property. The shrine to Texas celebrities is a treasured part of Austin’s history, so throughout construction, workers were diligent about buttressing sections that needed extra support, preventing debris from falling on it, and rebuilding a few sections that did fall prey to the construction. 

Then there was timing. The design of Zilker Studios had just begun when the pandemic hit and lockdowns started in March of 2020. Amid all the uncertainty, it was difficult to plan for construction. “A few months into construction we had to do a significant roof redesign when we couldn’t get our preferred roofing material,” said Anna Lake-Smith, Zilker Studios’ project manager. The construction team also struggled to get all of the necessary pieces to connect to the City’s electrical grid, which ended up delaying the project. Lake-Smith said, “We’re very grateful to our team who took the uncertainty in stride.” 

 Even with the land donation, it still cost $25.5 million to build Zilker Studios. As with all Foundation Communities projects, it faced the challenge of layering a multitude of different sources of financing, including competing for limited public funding. Funding for Zilker came from a combination of low-income housing tax credits, a construction loan, City of Austin General Obligation Bonds, the state’s Multifamily Direct Loan Program, Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas’s Affordable Housing Program, Capital Magnet Funds and private fundraising.

 Zilker Studios opened in late May of 2023. The process of welcoming home 110 single adult residents, many of whom have experienced homelessness, has continued for weeks. Lake-Smith said, “That’s why we do what we do! Everyone on our team is here because we believe in the mission of FC, and I speak for all of us when I say we’re incredibly proud of Zilker Studios. Being able to walk through the space we know so well on paper is a surreal feeling to begin with, but seeing how residents make it their home is the ultimate motivation to keep going, and improve on the next affordable community.”

ESL Students at Foundation Communities Gain Opportunity, Independence Through On-site Classes

June 30, 2023 | Posted in Education |

It’s Thursday night at the Trails at Vintage Creek Learning Center. The kids have left, and adult students are there for the English as a Second Language (ESL) class. It’s a diverse group of learners from around the world, most notably the Middle East, Central and South America and Eastern Europe. Foundation Communities paused the program at Vintage Creek during the pandemic and resumed last August and the demand was very high. Now, it’s even higher as the program includes free child care during class time.

At one point, the instructor has the students pair up and stretch the limits of their English speaking abilities to tell their partner what they did yesterday. For some, it’s relatively easy. For others, it’s a real struggle. Kellie Stiewert, the community engagement coordinator who manages the ESL classes for Vintage Creek, says the biggest challenge for the program is teaching students who are at various skill levels. Stiewert said, “Some of our folks are very literate. They have had college educations in their native countries. Some people have not had any schooling at all.” She says this is particularly true of women from Afghanistan, and recalls a current female student from that war-torn country who had to rely on her children for all forms of communication in English. Teachers use a combination of spoken words and visual gestures to help the beginner students. Bilingual ESL volunteers are a critical part of the program as they can provide one-on-one instruction at the student’s level.

Stiewert says for the her, the most exciting part of the program is seeing the students gain more confidence and independence through better communication, particularly the women from Afghanistan. The aforementioned woman is now able to walk into the property manager’s office by herself to discuss housing concerns for her family and keep up with what’s happening with her children in school. A better understanding of English also helps immigrants gain access to government benefits and assistance, and pass the test for American citizenship.

Probably the main goal for the students is to remove the language barrier that makes it difficult for non-English speakers to find good-paying jobs. A student who asked to not be identified said he left Belarus because his life was in danger after he expressed his political views. He trekked through South and Central America to get to Texas, and now that he’s here, he wants to fully utilize his experience as an electrician to earn a decent living. He said,”I need to communicate with different people… I need to study, maybe six months. Maybe after 2000 hours, I can, I will be able to work alone…I have to know English to study for that.”

A younger male student said he had to leave Venezuela last year after he took part in protests in college against the way the government handles the country’s economy. He’s now working on his English so he can communicate better in kitchens. His plan is to follow his life’s passion and become a chef. It’s his American dream.

Foundation Communities’ ESL classes are free and open to the public. They take place mornings and evenings Monday through Thursday at our Trails at Vintage Creek and Sierra Vista Learning Centers and online. Click here to learn more about enrollment.

Healthy Crowds Enjoying Free Zumba with Free Child Care

April 27, 2023 | Posted in Health, Healthy Initiatives |

On Friday mornings, the Homestead Oaks Learning Center is filled with lively Latin music and dozens of energized neighbors. Zumba classes started there in March with Jasmin returning to lead the class.

Eloysa Lozano said, “I come here because I love Zumba, I love dancing, I love exercising and I love the instructor.” For cancer survivor Mary Hart, it’s all about improving her health. Get inspired by watching video of the class in action below.

We are now providing free child care at all of our fitness classes. View the full schedule of
Health Initiatives events at FCHealth.info.

Celebrating $2.6 Million in Federal Funding for Solar Panels, Learning Centers

April 27, 2023 | Posted in Green Building, Housing, Education |

Foundation Communities is grateful to US Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) for securing more than $2.6 million in federal funding for our sustainability and education programs as a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Doggett joined us on March 14 at the Laurel Creek Learning Center to explain how the funding will help make our housing even more affordable for residents through the purchase and installation of solar panels at some of our apartment communities. Doggett said, “This will basically, we believe, reduce the energy costs for Foundation Communities by a little more than $100,000 each year.” That money can be used to the benefit of our residents and those who
use our financial wellness and health programs. Doggett praised us for leading the way in reducing our country’s reliance on fossil fuels. Foundation Communities is already the largest nonprofit producer of solar power in Central Texas with 1.5 megawatts of generating capacity.

The funding will also help our Learning Centers better assist families with free afterschool and summer learning programs. You can watch video of the entire announcement event below.

Family Finds a Home and Pursues Dreams at Laurel Creek

April 27, 2023 | Posted in Housing, Affordable Housing, Financial Stability |

Edward and Rebecca Henderson had dreams of owning a farm. The parents of three girls, they were leasing property in Bastrop County on a “handshake” deal – they could one day buy it minus what they had paid in rent. But In 2016, the owner sold the property at a higher price and gave the family one month to move out.

“We were angry and felt betrayed,” said Edward. “I had to watch my wife cry. But we also realized we still had each other, we had God’s grace, and we had time to turn things around.”

They didn’t expect that turnaround to take six years. Unable to find an apartment they could afford in the Austin area, the Hendersons moved into a tiny home owned by a church shelter. Their next move was into an apartment in Giddings. After a few years, they decided they were too far from Austin, as Edward’s delivery work was costing too much in gas and time away from home.

In 2021, the family moved into an extended stay hotel in Austin. The hotel hired Edward, so that became their home, but a year later, he was told he could no longer live and work there.

They had two weeks to leave. That’s when Rebecca found out about Foundation Communities. She called us, and received a call back the next day saying her family could move into Laurel Creek if they met all the qualifications. They did.

Edward said, “It’s been a blessing; a supportive community where we feel calm and like we don’t have to worry.”

The Hendersons moved in through our Children’s HOME Initiative (CHI), which includes a significant rent reduction and services like financial coaching. The family’s financial situation is rapidly improving, which has them dreaming again about one day owning a farm.

Client Counts on Prosper Center for Taxes Done the Right Way

February 28, 2023 | Posted in Tax Services |

Ana says the location of Foundation Communities’ Prosper Center North is very convenient for her. But, that’s not the real reason why she has been going there for the past five years to complete and file her tax return.

“Filing your taxes sometimes is scary because you don’t know what you’re doing. You want to do the right thing. So, it’s better to come to someone that can guide you and show you what you need to be doing step by step,” said Ana. “They are very friendly and very organized. They’ll tell you what you’ll be needing. So, that’s why I like to come up here.”

Ana also says the staff and volunteers are very thorough and they double-check everything. She says the service was especially helpful during the pandemic, when she wasn’t able to work. Our IRS-certified tax preparers helped her not only receive a tax refund to help with mortgage payments and household expenses. She also received the Advance Child Tax Credits and the Earned Income Tax Credits, money they saved for emergencies and for their daughter’s future college expenses.  

 Ana believes the Tax Help program is especially helpful to Latino and African-American taxpayers in Central Texas because it’s free and there’s always bilingual staff available to help if necessary. Even with that, we hear from some taxpayers that they prefer to pay for tax preparation services, thinking that will somehow help them get a bigger refund. Ana doesn’t agree with that thinking.  

 “The benefit to coming up here is you’ve got people who are doing their job the right way,” said Ana. “They’re honest, they’re telling you this is what’s going to be best for you, versus going somewhere else where they’re telling you, no, you don’t have to report that, so you can get 100 bucks. At the end of the day, you’re the one who’s going to be in trouble with the IRS because you’re not being honest.”  

In this video, Ana talks about why she keeps returning to Prosper Center North for tax preparation.

 The Prosper Tax Help program will be open seven-days-a-week through Tax Day, April 18, 2023  at five  community locations in Austin & Round Rock. 

Formerly Homeless Man Calls Living at The Jordan a Blessing

February 22, 2023 | Posted in Housing, Affordable Housing |

Ronn Davila is passionate and sincere as he describes the five years he spent homeless as his chance to start over. Once a successful business manager, Ronn was unemployed when he became separated from his wife and four children in 2011. He had no money in savings due to years of poor money management.

Ronn began living in his truck and spending his days searching for work, free food and a safe place to sleep and shower. “I didn’t feel helpless because my faith and my drive is such that this is not who I am, this is what I am now,” said Ronn.  “I need to try to fight to get my life back.”

After experiencing homelessness for five years, Ronn’s truck broke down and he was forced to move into homeless shelters in downtown Austin. This turned out to be a blessing. He not only had regular meals, he also got a case manager who informed him about what programs were available to help him. They also gave him a voucher to work out at the YMCA. Managers at the “Y” were so impressed by how hard Ronn was working to lose weight and by his positive attitude that they hired him to clean the facility after hours. That allowed Ronn to save enough money to rent an apartment. He was no longer homeless.

From there, Ronn spent the next five years seeking out and working better paying jobs in construction, and saving his money so he could move into apartments that were nicer and in safer parts of Austin. In 2018, Ronn found out Foundation Communities would soon open a brand new, affordable apartment community in the posh Mueller development.

Ronn wanted so much to live in The Jordan at Mueller that he decided to step out on faith. He went back to living in his truck to save money, and he made sure he was one of the first people to apply for an apartment. Ronn won over the property managers with his story and his determination. They went the extra mile to help him get approved to move in. Ronn told the managers, “I’ll bring back the paperwork, I’ll go get pay stubs. I’ve got the money. You want it in pennies? Whatever you need.”

After four years, Ronn Davila is still enthusiastic about living at The Jordan. He’s constantly looking for opportunities to help his neighbors with car repairs or food. He also helps maintenance workers keep the community clean. Click on the video below to hear Ronn Davila describe the moment he found out he was approved for an apartment at The Jordan at Mueller and the day he moved in. You can help our neighbors like Ronn find a fresh start in affordable housing by supporting Foundation Communities during Amplify Austin March 1 – 2 at foundcom.org/amplify.