Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

Positive vibrations

Reclaiming the mean streets of Providence, one building at a time

Photo by Richard Asinof

Jennifer Hawkins, executive director, ONE Neighborhood Buiiders, speaks at the March 28 ribbon cutting ceremony, as Mayor Jorge Elorza, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, and Carol Ventura, executive director of RI Housing, listen.

By Jennifer Hawkins
Posted 4/4/22
The strategy of rebuilding neighborhoods, street by street, building by building, is shared by Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders.
When will payday lending in Rhode Island face greater regulation? When will the R.I. General Assembly raise the obscenely low rates for Medicaid reimbursement? Where does housing fit into the work of CommerceRI as an economic priority in terms of investment of resources? When will Jennifer Hawkins be invited to be a guest on WPRI’s Newsmakers?
Later on that same morning, Brett Smiley launched his campaign for Mayor of Providence at the Wexford building. The psychic distance between Delaine Street in Olneyville and Dyer Street seemed immense. In making his official announcement, Smiley said that he wanted to focus on “simple, quality of life issues” if elected mayor, emphasizing snow removal, according to a news report by WPRI.

Editor’s Note: On Monday morning, March 28, ONE Neighborhood Builders held a gathering to celebrate a ribbon-cutting ceremony for two new affordable housing projects – nine apartments located in three buildings on Delaine Street and eight modular apartments at Bowdoin Rowhouses.

The ribbon cutting had been planned to be outdoors, but a record-breaking cold snap had made that impossible. At the last moment, ONE Neighborhood Builders had to improvise, moving the gathering inside, to what became a crowded second-floor of a three-bedroom apartment at 153 Delaine St.

Accessibility these days is always an issue for ConvergenceRI, and given the last-minute change in venue, Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, reached out to ConvergenceRI, saying: “Hi Richard, due to the cold and wind, we have decided to move the event indoors. This is far from ideal for reasons of accessibility – but it was either that or frostbite. I very much hope you can still join us.”

For all the talk – and posturing by elected officials – about the importance of “affordable housing,” the gathering on Delaine Street, with a subsequent short walk to inspect the ongoing work at the Bowdoin project, had a different feel to it. It was about people who are walking the walk.

As ConvergenceRI sat in a chair, masked, against the wall, in the crowded second floor apartment, the riff that came into his head was the memorable quote from Raymond Chandler about “mean streets” and how it applied to Hawkins.

The quote came from Chandler’s essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” describing the character of the private detective, Philip Marlowe, he had created. It began: “Down these mean streets a [woman] must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a [woman]. She is the hero; she is everything.”

The apt description also applied to Sen. Jack Reed, who despite all the happenings in the world of national and international politics, made it his business to be at the Delaine Street gathering, in a neighborhood of “mean streets” in Providence, a neighborhood that is being rebuilt, block by block.

Hawkins, it seemed to ConvergenceRI, spoke with a particular eloquence about the challenges facing the city. Here are her written remarks, slightly edited, which had begun with Hawkins acknowledging her team, staff and board members, and the dignitaries in attendance.

PROVIDENCE – It’s wonderful that affordable housing is now on the top of everyone’s mind. Everyone wants to know how we can produce more housing to meet the skyrocketing demand. And many are asking how we can build the capacity of the sector – from contractors to underwriters – to meet the influx of federal funding.

I’d like to offer a couple of thoughts. First, there is not a worse environment to get hard work done than in a cycle of peaks and troughs.

Consistent funding for housing production allows developers to create a strong housing pipeline. It also encourages construction companies and architects to expand their workforce. We all want to produce a lot of housing – but buying and permitting land that allows for building at reasonable density is not easy or cheap.

Without confidence that there will be financing at the end of the line, it’s challenging to take the first step – for private companies and nonprofits alike.

The state must increase not only the portion of ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] funding going towards housing development – Homes RI has recommended $500 million – but also increase the annual contribution to the newly created Housing Production Fund.

Rhode Island needs to be making consistent investment that is in line with the level of needs – in all years – so we don’t end up back where we are now.

In the community
Secondly, as we can see here, housing is located in a community. Small infill developments like Delaine and Bowdoin transform city blocks, and one by one, blocks transform an entire neighborhood.

These small developments take just as much energy as a larger development – often times more – and still require numerous sources.

In fact, this combined $4.4 million project required a total of six sources of permanent funding, plus a bridge loan, a land bank loan, and two pre-development grants. And each required a separate application on a separate timeline. [As an aside – I must say the current One Stop application is great, and I really hope that we can keep making similar improvements.]

I’ve been asked: Why would you go through all that to only produce 17 apartments? And, I’ve heard the critics ask: How are we ever going to solve this crisis by building 17 apartments at a time? My answer to that is: ONE Neighborhood Builders invests in communities, and small real estate projects like these have an outsized impact on a neighborhood.

But, yes – we would love to be building 100 apartments at once, and ONE Neighborhood Builders, and my CDC [community development corporation] colleagues – have the vision and capacity to do so, if municipalities would allow us – and if consistent funding was available.

Just like Rhode Island has successfully done for economic development, let’s use those same tactics to get sites “pad-ready” for multi-family housing construction. We’re ready to do our part.

The backstories
In your program, you’ll find details about the project funders, under “Sources and Uses,” as well as the “Backstory” behind each project. I want to quickly thank our development teams – at Delaine, Calson Construction, Ed Wojcik Architects – and at Bowdoin – Truth Box Architects and Coastal Modular Homes.

[Editor’s Note: The backstory of the Delaine Street project was particularly compelling, showing the before photos form January in 2018, with the details: “For years, the existing structures had been boarded up and covered by a spidery web of vines that enshrouded the buildings. The homes cast a shadow of blight on the area and had become magnets for illegal dumping. ONE Neighborhood Builders recognized the value of redeveloping these homes that were located adjacent to a Dr. Day Care child care program and an alternative high school. This type of community development work – reclaiming neighborhood assets and turning them into healthy, safe homes – has a stabilizing impact on the area and brings positive activity and energy to the neighborhood.”]

Special guests
[Editor’s Note: At this point in the program, Hawkins introduced each of the guest speakers – including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, State Rep, John Lombardi, CommerceRI Deputy Secretary Josh Saal, City Councilor Oscar Vargas, and Carol Ventura, executive director of RI Housing.]

I’d now like to turn the program over to our special guests. Mayor Elorza: We have shared the stage enough times that I hope it’s OK if I steal your line: Providence has the hardest working Planning Department in New England. First, the five lots on Bowdoin Street were exceptionally tough.

The illegal dumping on the site required DPW to clear the lot – hauling off a 40-yard dumpster of debris – including over 100 tires and a boat. Next, after the fire and subsequent demolition, the property titles were a convoluted mess that required the Providence Redevelopment Authority to untangle through legal actions.

And finally, the city worked with us to get around financing challenges posed by using modular construction. There is no way that these homes on Delaine or Bowdoin would have been developed without the Providence Planning Department.

Senator Reed: It’s great to see you again. Thanks so much for your steadfast support of affordable housing, of the annual NeighborWorks America appropriation, and for construction pre-apprenticeships. You see the connections and champion comprehensive community development. I also want to recognize the help your office provided us in securing the VA hospital to stage our modular boxes. I honestly don’t know what we would have done otherwise. Thanks for spending time with us this morning.

Speaker Shekarchi has made housing a top legislative priority this session. I am proud to serve on the House’s Special Commission to study the LMI Act and to work with leaders, such as Rep. Speakman, Rep. Williams, and Rep. Lombardi to pass legislation to expand the creation of Accessory Dwelling Units, incentivize communities to build more deeply affordable homes, and to ensure nonprofits have right of first refusal to purchase state or municipal owned properties. Rep. John J. Lombardi, I welcome you to say a few words.

Josh Saal has only been in Rhode Island for three months, and I don’t think more than a week has gone by when we have not spoken. This is a testament to how nudgy I can be, but more importantly – to his accessibility. One of our first conversations was about how to increase permanent supportive housing in Rhode Island. As our statement in the program brochure describes: ONE Neighborhood Builders believes Rhode Island can be the first state to achieve “functional zero” homelessness, and we are eager to do our part.

We are setting aside 10 percent of our apartments in our developments for persons who have experienced homelessness. At Both Delaine and Bowdoin, we will offer permanent supportive housing apartments. I’m looking forward to working closely with Josh and his new team in the months ahead.

Councilman Oscar Vargas. Thanks for joining us today. As the City Council for Olneyville, who knows better than you the connection between health and housing. Thanks for offering to lend a hand when it comes to community safety, vaccination clinics, and promoting our resident leadership academies.

Several weeks ago, many of us were gathered at an event to announce the state’s Acquisition fund – modeled after Rhode Island Housing’s existing land bank program. These three Delaine Street buildings were held in Rhode Island Housing’s land bank while we worked cooperatively to bring together the capital sources. Having more resources to buy and hold property is so important.

And, I also want to use this occasion to commend the tireless commitment Carol Ventura and her team at Rhode Island Housing have made to Rent Relief. ONE neighborhood Builders is a rent relief partner. And, as of today, we’ve helped 3,215 people obtain $2,814,000. We have accomplished this because of Rhode Island Housing’s leadership.

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