“In 2021 I intend to not stay in my lane and to push boundaries,” proclaims Jennifer Hawkins.

She’s got a head start on that New Year’s resolution. Last year, ONE Neighborhood Builders (ONB) – formerly known as Olneyville Housing Corporation for you “Take a left where the Almacs used to be” types – made a play into the 195 land. Their proposal for a 58-unit apartment building with a ground-floor childcare center won widespread acclaim, but was unfortunately not pushed forward by the 195 Commission. Hawkins, the executive director, remains undaunted.

“Our proposal generated a lot of attention and I believe the concept remains strong,” she says. “I will be working with my team to identify alternative locations.”

She also has designs on East Providence. Last May, ONB secured funding for its first project outside city limits: “the preservation of a 36-unit ‘naturally occurring affordable housing’ development.”

Also last spring, ONB broke ground on King Street Commons in Olneyville, its largest project to date, with 60-plus affordable apartments that will start coming online this summer.

While this kind of work, even at this scale, may fit comfortably inside ONB’s traditional lane, the project Hawkins and her team launched last November does not. ONE|NB Connects is a community wifi program that will bring free, high-speed internet to roughly 3,000 homes in Olneyville, a community with some of the lowest rates of internet service in Rhode Island.

“Enabling financially struggling families to connect to the internet so kids can learn from home and parents can work from home and access essential services is a game-changer,” Hawkins says. “Wifi is no longer a convenience.”

It’s a testament to the holistic approach ONB takes to neighborhood development. Whether it’s bringing wifi to a whole swath of the city or hiring community health workers to support testing, contact tracing, and quarantine as part of its Central Providence Conquers COVID initiative, ONB is no longer content just developing housing.

“Building affordable homes is vital, but we can’t build our way out of systemic inequities,” Hawkins notes. “As the leader of a community development corporation, I believe my job is to examine the systems and policies that hold back neighborhood revitalization and to chip away at them, and pilot alternatives that may someday be scaled up.”

Her Reason for Optimism: “The tolerance and empathy exhibited by young people gives me hope. I listen to my 13-year-old daughter and her friends talk – they demonstrate a level of broad-minded compassion that may just save us.”

Originally posted on December 29, 2020 by Providence Monthly