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Small homes could make a big difference amid R.I. housing crisis

In a pilot project, ONE Neighborhood Builders has completed five 750-square-foot ‘net-zero energy’ homes topped by solar panels in Olneyville

Jhanev Allen Butler lives in one of the new small homes that have been built in Providence's Olneyville neighborhood as part of a pilot project meant to show the long-term viability of "net-zero energy" affordable housing.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The stock version of the American Dream involves a big house with a white picket fence, a humongous yard, two kids and a dog.

But for years, Jhanev Allen Butler harbored a different dream, scouring the country for a home that checked three boxes: affordability, sustainability, and community.

Now, her dream has come true in Olneyville.

On Wednesday, Allen Butler stood on her balcony in the Sheridan Small Homes development, a cluster of five 750-square-foot homes that ONE Neighborhood Builders has erected on Sheridan Street, between Manton Avenue and the Woonasquatucket River Greenway bike path.

The homes are topped by solar panels and were built in a South-facing arc to maximize solar production. Airtight and well insulated, the structures meet the “net-zero energy” standard, meaning they produce as much energy as they consume.


ONE Neighborhood Builders has completed the Sheridan Small Homes development in Providence's Olneyville neighborhood as part of a pilot project.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The two-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom homes are being occupied by income-qualified buyers, with starting price of about $140,000. For example, two of the homes are reserved for families earning 80 percent of the area median income, meaning $52,400 for a family of two and $65,500 for a family of four. And they’re deed restricted, meaning they must be sold to other income-qualified buyers.

The homeowners belong to a condominium association, which owns the solar panels and which ONE Neighborhood Builders manages. Revenue generated from selling excess energy drawn from the solar panels helps offset monthly condo fees.

Allen Butler believes the American Dream is already changing as a young generation faces the harsh realities of climate change and a housing crisis that places home ownership beyond the grasp of many young couples.

“I think it has begun, with the Tiny Home movement and ‘Tiny House Nation,’ ” she said. “People are starting to recognize that less is more.”

Allen Butler and her husband, Romario Butler, are expecting their first child, a baby girl, in January, and she’s already looking forward to walking on the bike path with her daughter.


“It’s exactly what I wanted,” she said. “It’s what I dreamed of.”

But Allen Butler knows full well that these days, finding a dream house can be a nightmare.

As a clinical psychology graduate student in California, she began searching for an affordable, “green” house, conducting a comprehensive search up and down the East Coast. She said she was looking for something closer to her family in Boston that she could afford while paying off big amounts of student debt.

Aside from Olneyville, she found just one set of similar homes, outside Atlanta.

Two of the five Sheridan Small Homes in Providence's Olneyville neighborhood are now occupied, and closings are expected on two others by the end of December.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The five homes are bunched together on three-quarters of an acre. But Allen Butler said she wasn’t longing for a big lawn between her and her nearest neighbor.

She said studies done in European countries such as Switzerland and Sweden have shown that happiness is not correlated with factors such as income or house size. And while Americans have a tradition of big homes with gates and fences, she believes happiness stems from a sense of community.

“I really wanted to be part of a community,” Allen Butler said. “I get to talk to the people who are walking by on the bike path. Joggers run by and say it looks great. People stop and talk to me from my balcony.”

While it’s far from a “McMansion,” her new home does not feel cramped, she said. “High ceilings and big windows — that’s the trick,” she said.


The Sheridan Small Homes development includes a 6-foot-by-6-foot main picture window and ceilings that slope from 9 feet to 12 feet high.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When her husband grew up in Jamaica, he lived with 15 other people, and in California, they lived with six other people, Allen Butler said. “We lived in northern California and saw that housing insecurity was a huge problem,” she said. “We saw the intersection between houselessness and racial disparities.”

Small homes can be a big part of the solution, Allen Butler said, but there are so many obstacles, including zoning laws. “Counties and cities prevent you from living in smaller spaces,” she said. “However, there is so much houselessness that we need those smaller spaces — for a community, for people to thrive.”

Changing the status quo will require advocacy and new legislation, Allen Butler said. “That is what it will take.”

Sheridan Small Homes is a pilot project that aims to demonstrate “that it is economically feasible to build affordable housing to high sustainability standards and that people want to live in smaller homes,” ONE Neighborhood Builders said in a written case study of the project.

“I think we are so much more aware of climate change, and there is a false dichotomy between building sustainable housing or affordable housing,” said Jennifer Hawkins, president and executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders. “You can and should do both, especially because of the environmental justice issue. So often, low-income neighborhoods bear the burden of pollution and all the issues that come with environmental problems.”

Two of the five Sheridan Small Homes are now occupied, closings for two others are expected by Dec. 31, and one more buyer is going through a mortgage approval process, she said.


But Hawkins said ONE Neighborhood Builders is interested in undertaking other small homes development, perhaps in East Providence. “It’s a matter of finding the right parcel of land that would make sense,” she said.

Hawkins said land use regulations can be an impediment to small home projects. “Luckily, the City of Providence has quite progressive zoning rules, so we didn’t need a variance,” she said.

But in some places, land use regulations call for one house per acre, she said, and while large homes can be gorgeous they are unaffordable to many people. She said her mother grew up in 900-square-foot ranch house in Warwick. “We need to go back to building much more modest homes,” she said.

In March, House Deputy Majority Whip Mia A. Ackerman, a Cumberland Democrat, introduced legislation to encourage the building of tiny homes. The bill would require towns and cities to allow tiny homes to be used as accessory dwelling units and to be counted as affordable housing, but the bill never made it out of committee. The Low and Moderate Income Housing Act calls for at least 10 percent of the housing in each city and town to be “affordable,” but many don’t meet that threshold.

While the obstacles to small affordable housing are higher in suburban communities, Hawkins said, “I think everyone can agree there is real power in home ownership, and if we can build more starter homes, more people will have the opportunity to enter the home ownership market.”


Homes like Allen Butler’s can have a “huge impact” on the state’s housing crisis, Hawkins said. “We have to embrace the idea of building smaller homes in a more clustered fashion,” she said. “I think it is the house of the future.”

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.