Tiny houses, big city

Lawrence man says small homes could fill housing needs

December 18, 2016 : Eagle-Tribune, by Terry Date

TERRY DATE/Staff photo Right, Franallen Acosta, a Lawrence entrepreneur who has founded Mi Casita, a tiny homes company, stands with Sam Facella, owner of Flametech Steels in Lawrence. The two are in talks about building the homes at Flametech.

LAWRENCE — In a city where a big chunk of the population, half, spends a big chunk of its income, half, on housing, the chance to own a tiny house with a tiny mortgage generates big interest.

It excites Franallen Acosta, 23, a 6-foot 6-inch Lawrence man who ducks when entering many homes but is keen to build wee houses in this densely settled city of nearly 80,000 souls.

The 2012 Lawrence High graduate wants homeownership for more residents. He has faced housing uncertainty himself; has friends who have battled homelessness; and his mother has for 20 years spent the lion's share of her pay on rent, likely in the neighborhood of $200,000.

"And she'll never get that back," he said.

Acosta also wants to create jobs in his home city, where, according to state labor statistics,unemployment stood at 5.3 percent in October, a major improvement from the 10 percent level of two years ago but still almost twice the state's 2.7 percent rate in October.

Acosta's response to unemployment and expensive yet limited housing in Lawrence is founding Mi Casita. Translated from Spanish it means "My Little House." It's a small step along a challenging, steep path. 

Mi Casita brought him to Flametech Steels at 600 Essex St. on Monday for the latest of several meetings with local steel fabrication company owner Sam Facella, 56.

The topic?

"Figuring out how we can build these homes here," Acosta said.

The two oddly matched fellows — Acosta is a head taller than Facella and less than half his age — share vegetable rice Acosta brought from his favorite Lawrence bodega.

The pair may soon collaborate on more than lunch. They plan to join forces on making a prototype tiny house thanks to a state grant awarded to The MILL, the Maker Innovation Lab of Lawrence, of which Mi Casita is a founding member.

Meanwhile, back at lunch, Facella talks about a trade magazine article on shipping containers used as the skeleton for tiny houses. Containers can be stacked to make multiple floors, too, he says.

Acosta says the homes' could be trimmed out in wood and fitted with solar panels.

Big space, little homes

Next, Acosta and Facella tour Flametech's enormous warehouses. 

Towering brick smokestacks poke the sky at the warehouse sides, vestiges of 100 years earlier when steam from coal-fired boilers spun turbines and powered Lawrence textile factories.

Today, a sparse array of steel, racks, tables and cutting tools sit ice cold on the quiet floor; overhead cranes hang above them.

Entering the second of the buildings, used for storage, Facella says it's haunted.

Decades ago these spaces reverberated with fitters and welders and layout people, some 40 employees, making a racket producing steel bridge and tunnel parts.

Now the company's skeleton crew of four employees fill smaller specialized orders and high-end ornamental iron work. 

Facella is constantly looking to revive the steel fabrication business his family founded in 1960. Steel-framed tiny houses fit that bill. 

"Why I encouraged Fran to look at them is because, one, we have been working with metals all our lives; and, two, we have cranes and can turn them (the containers) upside down."

As it turned out, The MILL maker space at the Everett Mills on Union Street in Lawrence would later this same week be awarded a $65,000 grant from the state's economic development and finance agency, MassDevelopment, to expand the lab.

The founder of The MILL, Jennifer Hilton, said Acosta's company anticipates designing and prototyping a tiny house at The MILL in partnership with an off-site facility.

Acosta said that offsite facility is Facella's Flametech Steels. Acosta also said the Wentworth Institute of Technology, in Boston, is interested in taking part in the project.

Going small

Acosta has spent much of the past year shaping his business skills and tinkering with his version of the tiny house movement, a national trend grounded in a down-size philosophy.

A videographer and musician turned entrepreneur, Acosta has received training from business professionals at Eforall (Entrepreneurship for All) and won a $2,000 grant from its accelerator program. He has consulted with Lawrence officials on land and zoning, met with potential investors and business partners, and surveyed residents on their interest in owning a small-scale home.

Census data states a typical American home built in 2016 is 2,600 square feet and costs about $290,000. A tiny home is 100 to 400 square feet and costs from $30,000 to $70,000, according to The Tiny Life, a trade publication.

Acosta envisions selling them for $40,000 to $70,000, carrying mortgages of $600 a month — including taxes and insurance — maybe for less if they can build them for less.

It's a small answer to a big problem.

While 28.5 percent of Lawrencians live in poverty as opposed to 11.5 percent statewide, according to the latest Census figures, the average rent in Lawrence is close to the state average — $998 compared to $1,088. That means people in Lawrence pay a disproportionately higher percentage of their income for rent. 

Less than a third of residents, 28 percent, own their homes, compared to a state rate of 62.3 percent.

Acosta's business acumen

Lawrence' Director of Business and Economic Development Abel Vargas says the city is working with Acosta on clearly defining tiny houses in ordinance language and identifying a property that meets his needs.

Acosta has filed ordinance language, which upon review will need City Council approval. He has filed survey results, asking residents about the need and their desire for tiny houses.

"He has taken the appropriate steps," Vargas said. "His idea is promising."

Especially in Lawrence, where half the population spends half its income on rent, Vargas said.

The CEO of Eforall, David Parker, agrees that Acosta's idea is promising and meets a need.

He says fewer than 500 housing units were built in Lawrence from 1980 to 2012, about a 2 percent increase, while the population has grown by 22 percent in the same time.

Parker claims Acosta has the hallmarks of a successful entrepreneur.

”What we love about him (is) he has amazing ability, and that he has a terrific idea and (convinces) people that they should get involved,” Parker says. “He is the epitome of enthusiasm and determination.”

Acosta, who was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to Lawrence as a small child, now lives at the Hennigan Center, 55 East Haverhill St., a member of the Lawrence CommunityWorks residency program —a human potential incubator.

The program houses six young people with promising ideas, recent college graduates and others. In return they work eight hours a week for CommunityWorks, a nonprofit that develops affordable housing in Lawrence and builds a network of people and groups to revitalize the city. Acosta provides videography for the group, highlighting local talent, products and businesses.

CommunityWorks' director, Jessica Andors, says Lawrence has a variety of housing needs and Acosta's initiative makes sense for that segment that seeking a small space they can call their own.

"The tiny house idea has grabbed hold of his mind, heart and soul," Andors said. "He researches diligently and finds people with the know-how when he needs to do so."

The next major steps will be to find financial backers -- people with capital to support the initiative -- and to line-up buyers.

To that end Acosta invited a tiny homes builder to showcase the product at an LCW outside event.

He has also has identified 30 people who are interested in living the homes.

It's unusual for tiny houses to take root in a post-industrial, urban center such as Lawrence where 11,000 people live per square mile compared to a statewide average of about 840 people per square mile. 

Acosta isn't deterred. The city is sprinkled with vacant lots and the need for housing is here.

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