Deal Flow

At home in the hub of Olneyville

An interview with Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders

Photo by Richard Asinof

Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood builders.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/25/19
Olneyville is developing as its own hub of innovation around building a diverse community and neighborhood, with ONE Neighborhood Builders priming the pump.
Will hospitals and health systems in Rhode Island be willing to make investments in building affordable housing, similar to the projects that their counterparts in other parts of the country have undertaken? Will the concept of Opportunity Zones be compatible with efforts to rebuild neighborhoods and communities in Rhode Island where the return on investment may not be as dramatic as in other places? Is the pilot project of tiny homes being pioneered by ONE Neighborhood Builders something that could be easily replicated in other communities? How can Health Equity Zones become better integrated into the economic development landscape? What kinds of investments can the state make to improve pedestrian and bicycle opportunities in Olneyville?
In 1994, the William D’Abate School became the first site in Rhode Island to serve as a Child Opportunity Zone, an effort to braid resources together to improve educational outcomes by students. Twenty-five years later, what is the status of Child Opportunity Zones in the state? How many still exist and are operational? Has there been any study or accounting of the work that was accomplished? What are the lessons learned from that effort? Is it something that United Way of Rhode Island, one of the initial partners, has kept track of? Or, the Rhode Island Foundation?


PROVIDENCE – One way to look at the innovation economy in Rhode Island is to shine a spotlight on all the new buildings in and around downtown: the Wexford Innovation Complex, the South Street Landing, the River House apartment complex, and the new hotels in downtown, all geared to support an expanding innovation ecosystem in life sciences, biotech and health as a pathway to drive new economic prosperity for the state.

Another equally valid perspective would be to put the focus on the innovative ways in which the diverse community of Olneyville has redefined itself as one of the more desirable places to live and work in the Creative Capital, a far cry from the days of the foreclosure crisis in 2011 following the Great Recession, when numerous blighted properties, boarded up and abandoned, dotted the neighborhood.

The signs of rebirth can be found everywhere in Olneyville:

The rehab of the former Imperial Knife Factory at 60 King St., with 60 new apartments – 54 affordable units and six market-rate apartments.

The refurbished Riverside Park, which features a community garden adjacent to the bike path, is now lined with newly redeveloped housing projects across the street. What was once a hotspot for crime has now been transformed into a place where families gathered, according to Providence police officers.

The cluster of completed rehabbed properties that had been redeveloped as part of the Amherst Gardens development.

The nearby William D’Abate elementary school now has one of the lowest rates of absenteeism in the state, a fact that was offered as proof of the positive change in the neighborhood, during a tour arranged in 2017 for state Senators.

The relocation of EpiVax, Inc., one of Rhode Island’s pioneering biotech firms, to the Rising Sun Mills in Olneyville in 2018, a move that coincided with the firm’s 20th birthday.

Olneyville as a new hub
One of the people at the center of the upswing is Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, a community development corporation, which has been priming the pump for any number of innovative approaches to community building.

In the back of the strategic plan for 2018-2020 for ONE Neighborhood Builders, published in the fall of 2018, is a section that showcased key metrics achieved by the community development corporation.

Under sustainable properties, ONE Neighborhood Builders had a 95 percent occupancy rate, a 90 percent collection rate, and less than 10 percent annual turnover.

There were 8 new homes for sale, and 50 new apartments in pre-development. And, there had been more than 1,000 residents who had attended Olneyville collaborative events, including financial well-being courses and homebuyer education classes.

Many of the projects reflect a sustainable approach to community development, slowing building out neighborhoods with a one-at-a-time approach, purchasing properties, rehabbing them, and then offering them for rental and for sale, transforming blighted properties into desirable places to live.

“It is not just about developing affordable housing,” Hawkins explained during a recent interview. “One of the strategies we use is to think about what is good for a neighborhood. I believe in developing a mix of housing for a mix of incomes, so that people of different incomes can live together; this is really healthy and good, and we need more of that.”

Hawkins continued: “It’s not just elderly housing, or millennial housing, or middle class housing, or low-income housing. Why can’t that all be done together?”

In the hopper
A major new innovative initiative planned for the near future is the pilot development of a “tiny home” product suitable for what is known as “small infill lots.”

Under current plans, the “tiny home” initiative will be built as a condominium development of five such tiny homes, using prefabricated panels, pending a funding grant from Rhode Island Housing, with an estimated sales price of $125,000 each.

And, now underway, as part of the ongoing collaborative work of the Olneyville Health Equity Zone [for which ONE Neighborhood Builders is the convener], One Neighborhood Builders is partnering with Project Weber/RENEW and the Resilience Center to help develop community-based solutions to address the opioid epidemic. The new work involves expanding mindfulness training for community residents and community health workers.

ConvergenceRI caught up with Hawkins recently to talk about the plans moving forward. She had just returned from an all-day conference in Providence on Opportunity Zones, sponsored by CommerceRI.

After meeting with ConvergenceRI, Hawkins sat down with Leah Bamberger, director of sustainability for the city of Providence.

The answer to the last question asked by ConvergenceRI, “What would you like to talk about that we haven’t talked about?” Hawkins offered the potential for a bold new enterprise in Rhode Island. “Something of great interest to me, it is sort of a bold topic, is how to incentivize hospitals and health institutions to invest in housing.”

Such projects are now underway in California, she continued. “I’m curious about what could happen here in Rhode Island. How could we get hospitals interested in doing something on that scale?”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders:

ConvergenceRI: I’m curious what you thought about the Opportunity Zone conference today. Is there a there there?
HAWKINS:
I’m sure there is. Luckily, Olneyville is one of the [designated] Opportunity Zones.

I’m not sure how many are in Providence. There are 25 in the state, but I don’t know how many of those are in Providence.

I think that it is going to be difficult to marry a project that ONE Neighborhood Builders does, which would traditionally be affordable housing, with an Opportunity Zone, because it is predicated on the idea that there is going to be some return on investments.

And, our deals do not have [much of a] return on investments. I don’t know how that is going to work.

ConvergenceRI: If the investment strategy to enable equity funds to make investments that can reap large dividends, I am not sure how that will help community development groups.
HAWKINS:
To be determined. I think, basically, CommerceRI, to its credit, and I very much appreciated the fact that they are asking: tell us your thoughts are on potential projects, tell us potential hurdles; we want to bring money into the state.

There are more than 8,700 Opportunity Zones across the country, so if there is capital that is floating around looking to make investments, CommerceRI’s position is: we want to bring it to Rhode Island.

I appreciate the fact that CommerceRI is trying to project the reasons why people should make their investments in the state. I’m obviously interested in my tiny little piece of that.

I’m not sure if the projects that would be good from the community development perspective would be appealing to investors. That’s the challenge. We shall see.

ConvergenceRI: How is the tiny house project going?
HAWKINS:
It’s good. We have gotten to nearly 100 percent [completed] construction drawings.

And, we have submitted our funding application to Rhode Island Housing, so we are hopeful that we will obtain $350,000 in funding from them, so we shall see. We’re hopeful.

We have identified a parcel of land that we own down near the bikepath and the Woonasquatucket River in Olneyville.

The idea would be to develop a five-unit condominium, so it would be a clustering of these five small homes that would be affordable, say 70 to 100 percent of AMI [adjusted median income].

ConvergenceRI: When will you hear from Rhode Island Housing?
HAWKINS:
I believe that Rhode Island Housing would be bringing it their March board meeting as part of their New Housing Investment Fund, to spur home ownership for the moderate-income group.

ConvergenceRI: Do you already have a waiting list in place?
HAWKINS:
When we talk about it, people are very excited. We are pegging the selling price at about $125,000. We will have to see what the market is; who knows what will happen between now and a year from now?

The market could collapse or it could go through the roof. But that is what we’re thinking about asking for a sales price. For a net zero [energy] home, with an innovative design, I think it is a pretty hot deal. We shall see. Hopefully, we will be awarded the money, and we will be able to break ground.

ConvergenceRI: Can this project be replicated?
HAWKINS:
I believe so. The developer is using these prefabricated panels – I don’t know construction talk – but they are highly efficient insulated panels, and that will allow us to issue the net-zero rating [in terms of energy use]. Employing prefabricated technology is also innovative.

ConvergenceRI: In your most recent newsletter, it mentioned that as part of the HEZ in Olneyville, ONE Neighborhood Builders, working in partnership with Project Weber/RENEW and The Center for Resilience, would be helping outreach workers to conduct Narcan trainings in areas designated as overdose hotspots. Another program would support efforts to conduct mindfulness programs to increase coping skills and reduce risk behaviors among young parents.

How did the mindfulness training come about, and how are people responding.
HAWKINS:
The Center for Resilience is a member of our Health Equity Zone.

And we received money from the Rhode Island Department of Health to look at how to address the opioid epidemic.

We are working the Center for Resilience and Project Weber/RENEW. Together, they are focusing on mindfulness. Across the street from us, at the Nowell Leadership Academy [a public charter high school founded to serve pregnant and parenting young adults], we are asking the teachers to teach mindfulness to the students there.

There are certain stresses that can lead people to substance use or abuse, and being a teen parent, I think that’s pretty stressful.

The Resilience Center has been doing mindfulness training at the D’Abate School for quite a while, way before the Health Equity Zone came on the scene.

We’ve been able to fund them to enhance their work at the D’Abate School.

Another population that we’re going to be training in mindfulness practices will be our community health workers.

As you know, the Olneyville Health Equity Zone was awarded a Rhode Island Foundation grant, and through that, we are launching a community health worker initiative. There are going to be at least four community health workers hired, and they are all being trained in mindfulness practices.

ConvergenceRI: How would you describe Olneyville in 2019 – compared with Olneyville past, Olneyville today, and Olneyville in the future?
HAWKINS:
I started working in the neighborhood in 2011. And, while I grew up in Rhode Island, I didn’t spend much time in Olneyville, so I would say that would be my past vantage point. And, in the last eight years, there has been a pretty dramatic change.

In 2011, the foreclosure crisis was really at its apex; there were just so many boarded up, abandoned homes.

Today, the foreclosure crisis is absolutely receding. Many of those properties have been redeveloped, in no small part because of the work of ONE Neighborhood Builders. But it was also a free market, with people buying them up.

I think that Olneyville Square has become a really vibrant place.

I think that Riverside Park looks amazing, every time I go the park, I feel like my colleagues at the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council have added something new.

It’s a great neighborhood.

ONE Neighborhood Builders has been thinking very strategically about to bring comprehensive development to the neighborhoods contiguous to Olneyville, looking to branch out into parts of Manton and Federal Hill, the neighborhoods that are connected to greater Olneyville, the 02909 area. There are similar challenges and similar opportunities.

ConvergenceRI: How do you think the neighborhood sees itself? How have residents’ perceptions changed?
HAWKINS:
We have done this community survey for three years now – in 2014, 2016 and 2017. In the survey, we asked about perceptions about abandoned properties and blight in the neighborhood.

The findings were interesting. Over the years, perception about blight has increased while the actual amount of blight has decreased. To me, what that [translates to] is that when all around you are boarded up homes, you can become desensitized to that. When things are incrementally improved, the ones that remain are seen as more of a nuisance.

I think one measure of that is that we intentionally, in our real estate work, try to intersperse small developments with those big ones, because you can’t only do the big ones, because they take years, from conception to leasing, it could be four years.

In between that long, big project, you have to do smaller projects, one home ownership at a time, and that’s what we try and do.

ConvergenceRI: How has the perception of Olneyville changed, from the outside looking in?
HAWKINS:
It’s not just Olneyville, but several neighborhoods in Providence that still have health inequities and are disproportionately impacted by crime.

There is no way around that fact. I think that we have to constantly remind funders and others of the need; it is important to spotlight the need.

At the same time, it is important to amplify the opportunity, the positive benefits, and the change that is happening. It’s not just throwing good money after bad.

Look at how much positive change there is, when you see new bars and restaurants opening up. I like to see people choosing to live here, and I think as much as you can continue to do that so it doesn’t displace the existing businesses and residents, that’s really great.

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