Innovation Ecosystem

Investing in neighborhoods and residents

ONE Neighborhood Builders shows the path forward in solutions to the affordable housing crisis

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Hawkins

Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/26/21
The celebration of the completion of two affordable housing developments by ONE Neighborhood Builders illuminates the success of a place-based strategy to invest in neighborhood resiliency.
Can the success of the Sheridan Small Home project be replicated in other urban areas of Rhode Island? Should all new housing developments financed by the city and the state through tax abatements be required to include affordable childcare as a component? How have the investments in health equity zones changed the definition of neighborhood resilience in Rhode Island? Where is the institutional support for efforts lead by the Washington Park Neighborhood Association to plant 5,000 trees in five years in ZIP code 02905?
The recent decision by Brown University to purchase the River House apartments from the Wexford Science & Technology LLC for future student housing reveals the difficulty of attempting to create neighborhoods from a top-down vision of building an innovation hub in Rhode Island. If you build it, they may not come.
Wexford, which also developed South Street Landing and the Innovation Center, known as Point 225, a new parking garage and numbers 2 and 3 Davol Square, has received more than $100 million in public subsidies and tax breaks, according to a recent news story in GoLocalProv.
Housing is still the place where those with jobs need to go to live. The vision of the single-family home as the unit of housing represents a vision rooted in the 1950s, not the 2020s. It does not reflect the way that the definition of work has changed, particularly in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
We still seem to be fighting the philosophical battle once waged between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Do they teach that as part of the educational curriculum at Brown University?

PROVIDENCE – If Providence had its own home-grown breakfast cereal to celebrate its champions of place-based development, one of the faces on the inaugural cereal boxes would no doubt be Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, who in the last few years has stewarded a series of remarkable achievements and tangible results [though Hawkins would certainly demur and insist that members of her team share in the spotlight].

• Last fall, ONE Neighborhood Builders launched the first free community wireless network in Rhode Island, building out a wire mesh network using its properties, in response to the needs voiced by residents to connect to the Internet during the coronavirus pandemic. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Healing the digital divide.”]

• In December of 2020, ONE Neighborhood Builders received a two-year, $8 million investment from Blue Meridian Partners, to support place-based investments in the community to address health disparities through systems change, the Central Providence Opportunities Initiative. The goal is to increase economic mobility for residents. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Changing life trajectories in Providence.”]

• Since 2019, ONE Neighborhood Builders has served as the convener of the Central Providence Health Equity Zone, bringing together residents, community organizations, health professionals and others to address root causes of health disparities. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Health Equity Zones expand to Cranston, West End of Providence, East Providence.”]

• In October of 2019, ONE Neighborhood Builders held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the innovative Sheridan Small Homes project, a community of five, very affordable compact small homes that have been built along Riverside Park in Olneyville. The small homes project features net-zero design and passive solar techniques, designed by RISD students. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Five small homes poised to become a giant step for RI.”]

A big deal
On Monday morning, July 26, ONE Neighborhood Builders will host a celebration touting the completion of its two latest affordable housing projects, King Street Commons and Sheridan Small Homes, representing some $20 million in investment in Providence – in developments outside of downtown. Among the elected officials on hand to join in the festivities will be Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, Gov. Dan McKee and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.

The new affordable housing projects represent the fruits of a collaborative approach to the place-based development of neighborhoods:

The 2.5-acre King Street Commons development includes 30 new affordable rental apartments and a state-of-the-art childcare center along King Street in Olneyville, plus the recapitalization and preservation of 32 affordable apartments in Providence’s Elmwood neighborhood. Families have already begun moving in, and the childcare center, to be operated by Children’s Friend, will open in September.

The financing for King Street Commons, as with many affordable housing projects undertaken by ONE Neighborhood Builders, represents a braiding together of resources, including: $11.7 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credit equity; $2 million from Building HOMES RI; a $960,000 RI Housing Preservation and Revitalization Loan; a $610,000 RI Housing mortgage; and $337,000 mortgage from LISC Rhode Island.

• The Sheridan Small Homes condominiums are Rhode Island’s first passive-house certified and affordable development. All five condominiums are under contract; the owners are low-income, first-time homebuyers. At 750 square feet, these two-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom homes are compact and exceptionally energy efficient.

The King Street and Sheridan Small Homes projects showcase how ONE Neighborhood Builders has remained true to its mission: to develop affordable housing and engage neighbors to cultivate healthy, vibrant, and safe communities. Since its founding in 1988, ONE Neighborhood Builders has an impressive track record: it has developed 458 affordable apartments; 130 for-sale homes; and more than 34,000 square feet of commercial and community space—totaling more than $134 million of investments.

At a time when the urgent lack of affordable housing has emerged as a major political and economic barrier to Rhode Island’s future prosperity, ONE Neighborhood Builders has provided a pathway forward, focused on investing in neighborhood resilience.

The art of the deal
It has been a busy week at ONE Neighborhood Builders, which hosted a visit by Geoffrey Canada, the president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, engaging in a day of conversation and sharing of ideas, which included having Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of Rhode Island Foundation, as a participant.

Another important development has been the addition of Kate Bramson to the team. She is serving as director of Policy, Fundraising and Communications at ONE Neighborhood Builders. Bramson had previously been the policy director for the Rhode Island Senate, following a stint as the economic development reporter at The Providence Journal.

In advance of the big news conference on Monday, Hawkins suggested that ConvergenceRI talk with Dean Harrison, the director of real estate at ONE Neighborhood Builders.

Harrison praised the innovative nature of the Sheridan Small Homes project, the first certified passive-house affordable development in Rhode Island, with electric power provided through a solar array,

“The existing housing stock in Providence is very old, and that’s often a challenge,” Harrison said. “You may have high rent, but you also have high utilities.” With these small homes, he continued, “You won’t have to spend a lot of money on utility costs.”

The development, situated near the bike path, adjacent to the park, is more than just an urban triple-decker or a duplex, he explained. “You don’t have to be out in the suburban areas to build an innovative project.”

With the King Street development, Harrison said, the inclusion of a reasonable, affordable daycare was something that the residents wanted – beyond the redevelopment of what had been a neglected property.

“Obviously, providing reasonable, affordable daycare nearby [is a selling point],” Harrison said. “You can get children to daycare in the morning. It is reliable, it is right there, it is convenient, it is affordable.”

More than just more funding needed
Harrison said he thought that the crisis in affordable housing in Rhode Island would not be solved through the provision of more funding. “Even if you say, provide more funding, that doesn’t solve everything,” he said. The state, Harrison continued, has to look at overall zoning, and in making development of housing, especially multi-family, more accessible outside of the cities in suburban communities.

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