Published in ConvergenceRI – October 28, 2019  

Full Article Here

PROVIDENCE – On Monday morning, Oct. 28, a ceremonial groundbreaking will take place in Olneyville for the innovative Sheridan Small Homes project, a community of five, very affordable compact small homes to be built along Riverside Park in Olneyville, in a new development being led by ONE Neighborhood Builders, a community development corporation. [Some of the work has already begun on site preparation.]

Among the dignitaries scheduled to attend and to speak are: Sen. Jack Reed; R.I Treasurer Seth Magaziner; Providence City Council President Sabina Matos; Bonnie Nickerson, director of Providence’s Planning and Development Department; and Carol Ventura, executive director of Rhode Island Housing.

Funding support for the Sheridan Small Homes project came from: Rhode Island Housing, NeighborWorks America, TD Charitable Foundation, HarborOne Bank, and the city of Providence.

At a time when two different reports published last week – the Rhode Island Life Index, a survey conducted by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island and the School of Public Health at Brown University, and the 2019 Housing Fact Book produced by HousingWorks RI – put the spotlight on the dire need for safe, healthy, affordable housing in Rhode Island, ONE Neighborhood Builders is taking action in creating an innovation solution, building a new development of five small homes, in an initiative that has the capability to be replicated and scaled up.

Translated, as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island moves forward with its plan to focus its Blue Angel philanthropy program next year on the development of more affordable housing in Rhode Island, perhaps it should consider how to invest in similar “small home” projects to replicate the development in other neighborhoods and communities across the state.

Quick turnaround
The ideas for a small home development were first discussed as part of a presentation at the Grow Smart RI conference in April of 2018. The gestation period from idea to design to securing financing to groundbreaking took about 18 months. And, if all goes according to plan, construction of the five small homes will be completed in 56 weeks, with new owners moving in sometime next fall, according to Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders.

“There will be five, single-family homes, part of a condominium community,” Hawkins told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview. One of the biggest benefits of being part of the condominium community, she continued, is that there will be an array of photovoltaic panels owned by the condo association. “The energy that they generate will cover the costs of the utilities for the five homes.”

Each of the new small homes will have two bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms, with a footprint of about 825 square feet.

Because of the PV panels, Hawkins explained, there will be effectively no utility costs. “It will be an all-electric home; heat and electricity are provided, with the PV panels covering that,” she said.

The range of the sales price for the five homes will range from $140,000 to $165,000, according to Hawkins. “It may go a little lower, it may go a little higher, depending on where the market is in a year,” she said. Many of the buyers, Hawkins said, will only need to put down 5 percent, sometimes less, depending on what mortgage products are available.

“If you are renting right now, you very likely will pay less for you monthly mortgage, for a much higher quality home,” she said.

Inundated with interest
The potential high demand generated by folks who want to purchase one of the five homes, which come with income restrictions, has put ONE Neighborhood Builders in what Hawkins described as an interesting position.

“I believe that there will be a huge amount of demand and desire to buy these homes,” she said. “We’ve never had to do a lottery or a reservation system before [for are other developments], so we are researching some fair and equitable practices about how to do that. We are, frankly, inundated with interest, which is excellent. We’re trying to figure out how best to manage that fairly.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, which serves as the backbone agency for an expanded Health Equity Zone in Central Providence and continues to break new ground on projects in Olneyville to improve the built environment.

ConvergenceRI: I continue to be impressed by all the projects that you are involved with in Olneyville.
Thank you.

ConvergenceRI: It is remarkable that such a small group has developed such a large footprint in serving the Olneyville neighborhood.
We are getting larger, from a staff capacity standpoint. I was writing a grant report the other day and, in answer to the question: how many employees do we have, I calculated we now have 16 full-time-equivalent staff members, in a combination of full-time, part-time workers and consultants. It is pretty impressive.

ConvergenceRI: It seems that ONE Neighborhood Builders has positioned itself at the cutting edge of many initiatives, including the expansion of Health Equity Zones. It seems to me, for the first time, after five or six years of work, health equity and Health Equity Zones are becoming part of what I would call the vernacular of health policy.
That is true.

ConvergenceRI: In your opinion, how has health equity become more than just a phrase and been recognized as an underlying principle of development work?
 As the term, social determinants of health, has entered the lexicon of everyone who is doing this work. The R.I. Department of Health has done a very good job of promoting the brand of HEZ and health equity zones, which is a good thing; it benefits all the work we are doing.

But, I think you are right. It is more than just the terminology. There is an ethos of understanding that, it has almost become hackneyed at this point to say: what determines your health is your zip code.

Yes, it is more important than you cholesterol numbers…

ConvergenceRI: This morning, at the release of the Rhode Island Life Index, Kim Keck, the president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island, said that “your zip code is more important than your genetic code.”
 There you go. It may be questionable; it might be true. I think the idea that there are these health disparities, where the life expectancy gap is 83 years on the East Side and 74 years in Olneyville is unconscionable.

When we think about those social determinants, we just keep coming back to the work that we’ve been doing since our founding, which is, comprehensive community development, working on the built environment, and then knitting together all of the social fabric to support residents and stakeholders to make a neighborhood thrive.

We can use the lens of social determinants when we speak about it, but I feel the work we have been doing has been pretty consistent.

And, fortunately, there is now a whole sector of systems that are paying attention, which is the health care ecosystem. But I wouldn’t say that we’ve changed our mission or changed our strategy.

ConvergenceRI: How do people in the neighborhood see it?
 I don’t think the person on the street would say, “I live in a community [that has] a health equity zone.” That doesn’t mean anything to anyone.

ConvergenceRI: How do they see the changes? Are they cognizant of the changes?
 Every two years, beginning in 2014, we have done a community needs assessment in Olneyville [as part of our HEZ work].

Now we’re branching out, and for the first time, we’re conducting a community needs assessment in the expansion neighborhoods of the central Providence HEZ, in Hartford Valley and Federal Hill.

What we’ve seen in Olneyville is that there has been a shift in perception around safety and community health.

When we ask: Do you see less abandoned blight? the residents say yes. Do you use the parks more often? Yes. Are you more likely, if you see a crime, to seek help form law enforcement? Yes.

So, these are proxies for measuring social efficacy, the idea that when you live in neighborhoods that are free of blight and crime and generalized disorder, you are a healthier person.

We think that this assessment that we’ve done can point to these perceptions. It really is a self-reported survey; it is by no means scientific. It is about [capturing] people’s perceptions.

ConvergenceRI: There are now a number of datasets, the Rhode Island Life Index being the latest one, to focus in on housing. The big announcement that accompanied the release of the Life Index today by Blue Cross was that the insurer’s Blue Angel Philanthropy grants program was going to be focused on affordable housing needs in Rhode Island.
 I applaud that decision.

ConvergenceRI: There were also the community needs assessments that were done by the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, which pointed to similar types of findings. The community needs assessments conducted by the HEZs were incorporated into the findings.
How important is it for the community to be at the table when policy decisions are being made?
 I think if there is a way to infuse the tri-annual needs assessment that the hospitals are required to do, to have that informed by the HEZs, that would be great. I think there are ways in which our information could be formalized in their tri-annual evaluation.

Not to understate the importance of hyper-localized data, and the uniqueness of communities, but I also think that there is a multitude of national data that shows that when someone has safe, affordable, healthy, secure housing, that their utilization of emergency services and, in general, their medical expenses, decrease as a consequence.

You don’t necessarily need to always show, well, that might be true in XYZ state, but isn’t true in Providence, in Rhode Island, or in Olneyville.

I do think you can extrapolate that, and I would encourage us to think about the fact this known and widely accepted. We don’t necessarily have to keep proving it locally.

ConvergencRI: In last week’s issue, I did a deep dive into what I saw was the lack of metrics as the state is taking over the Providence schools, about how they will measure success.
People are beginning to realize that investments in clinical approaches to health care are not going to change the health outcomes of what is happening in the neighborhoods, yet there is still a sense that we can solve all the education problems by focusing on the schools.
It strikes me that the same transformation that happened in health care around health equity also needs to happen with education: the realization that you can’t achieve your educational goals without addressing access to safe, affordable healthy housing.
 Yes. When I think about neighborhood revitalization, if you don’t address the built environment, you’re not going to be very successful. I am very sympathetic to the idea that we can’t say: Schools, fix everything. That’s unfair. And, you can’t say: Hospitals, fix everything; that’s really unfair.

But, there is a mutual benefit to all of these systems, when someone is able to have safe, affordable housing. It’s a shared responsibility. And, I don’t think that any one disagrees with that notion. Who would disagree with that?

ConvergenceRI: In terms of the small homes project, what are the opportunities to scale up the initiative in Rhode Island?
 Let me share some ideas that I would love to see replicated here in Rhode Island.

There is this project in Hartford, Conn., called the “Teachers’ Village,” it’s a full-circle development where there was an acknowledgement that you needed to build the homes where the teachers are in order to encourage people to live in the city in which they are working.

We’re developing four HeadStart classrooms for Children’s Friend, that is going to be co-located within an affordable housing development, called King Street Commons. There may be some employees of Chidlren’s Friend who would qualify for affordable housing.

It is not just thinking about affordable housing and then a community facility, but rather how does the community facility and affordable housing really knit together the community in a very intentional way.

I think as the small homes go, I think there is a huge potential for replication. The challenge that I see in scaling it up is the cost of building this net-zero energy, passive home. There is definitely a marginal increase in building not just to code, and not just to being green, but to building homes that are passive and net-zero.

We had to have in excess of 12-inch thick walls with superior insulation [for the Sheridan Small Homes] project.

We have triple pane windows. We needed to have this ERV [energy recovery ventilation] system, which cycles the air, because of the really tight envelope of the house. All of these additions cost a lot of money. And it raises the construction costs.

I feel a responsibility to try to build in the most ecologically sound way as possible. But it is difficult to marry that with affordable housing.

I would love to be able to do more of this, but I think that is the challenging piece. If we think about scaling this project up, we may have to scale it back to scale it up, if you will – making a very efficient home but necessarily making it passive and zero-energy.

ConvergenceRI: Could the possibility of replication of the small home project be with companies, as worker residences? As a way for companies to invest in their employees’ health and well being? As a way to reduce their administrative costs for health insurance?
: I like it.