LAWRENCE — Standing in a landlocked lot on Saratoga Street, Franallen Acosta gestured at a landscape of overgrown brush, trees, and patchy grass and imagined the possibilities.
“This could fit five, six houses,” Acosta said with outstretched arms.
That is, five or six really small houses. Like, tiny houses.
Acosta is trying to bring the tiny-house movement, a phenomenon more often associated with millennials in hipster-rich communities, to this aging mill city and its largely immigrant, low-income population. With backing from a nearby business accelerator program, he is plotting a test home of just 300 square feet for a city-owned parcel. And he’s persuaded Lawrence officials to buy into the concept so far, agreeing to consider zoning changes to permit houses that are too small under current rules.
Acosta said Lawrence is under the same extreme housing pressures as other Eastern Massachusetts communities, but large numbers of its low-income residents have few prospects of home ownership.
“We have these fears of gentrification, these fears of not being able to sustain ourselves in our communities, and these are things that worry me,” Acosta said. “I feel like the only way out of this is if this project comes to fruition.”
A lanky 23-year-old who quit his job selling solar panels to become an entrepreneur, Acosta is still in the early stages with this project. He estimated the costs of building one of his houses will range between $25,000 and $50,000. It will be on wheels so it can be rolled onto underused lots in Lawrence. Ideally it would be off the grid — using solar panels, battery-powered light bulbs, a rainwater collection system and composting toilet.
A city of 80,000 squeezed into 7 square miles, Lawrence has a varied stock of largely older, densely packed homes. The city has built few new homes in recent years, despite a sustained influx of residents.
Though home prices here are lower than elsewhere in the region, so are incomes. The median household income is about $35,000 a year, compared with almost $68,000 statewide. A city study found that nearly 40 percent of Lawrence residents spent more than half their income on housing.
Acosta estimates monthly mortgage payments for his tiny house could be as low as $600, about half the rent of an average apartment in Lawrence.
Numbers like this have Lawrence officials interested. They are working with him by identifying tax-delinquent properties that can be seized and used to host Acosta’s first batch of tiny homes.
“I would be interested to see how it will play out in an urban environment like ours,” Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said. “This is not going to solve our housing needs, but shame on us if we don’t test something that could work.”
Lawrence is also open to modifying its building and zoning codes to allow Acosta to build his tiny houses, said Abel Vargas, the city’s director of economic development. But he cautioned that to win city backing, Acosta needs to make sure there really is a long-term interest by people to live in such small spaces, Vargas said.
“One of the things I told Franallen is I think a lot of the people who choose to go into these places, they do it as principle, not just as a need,” Vargas said. “He has to make sure there’s a market.”
Acosta recently won a $2,000 grant for the tiny house endeavor from nonprofit Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll), an accelerator program in Lowell for socially conscious initiatives to help cities struggling with high unemployment and poverty. The goal for his project, which Acosta named Mi Casita, Spanish for my tiny house, is to build a “village” of about five houses in Lawrence, and then expand it to other communities in the Merrimack Valley.
The living-small movement is taking root in other communities in Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts YouthBuild Coalition is using a federal grant to build tiny houses for disabled veterans and so far has two under construction. It is approaching officials in the 11 Massachusetts communities where it has programs, which prepares low-income youth for jobs in the construction trades.
“Municipalities have no idea what these are,” said YouthBuild director Terry Moran. “We’re treading on some new ground here. That’s fine, we’re ready to talk to people and show them how it’s done around the country.”
Nantucket, which has one of the state’s most extreme housing markets, became the first community in Massachusetts to approve zoning specifically for tiny houses. The bylaw, approved in July, defines a tiny house as “a detached structure containing a dwelling unit with less than a total of 500 square feet constructed on a moveable trailer to be attached to a foundation pursuant to a building permit.” And it is not, the bylaw points out, an RV.
A municipal committee in Natick recently recommended the town encourage construction of homes in the 600- to 900-square-foot range, but not smaller. And the city of Boston has embraced construction of micro-apartments, typically studios as small as 350 square feet.
The American Tiny House Association has petitioned the International Code Council to add tiny houses to its residential building standards used by municipalities across the country. A vote on the petition is expected by the end of November.
In Lawrence, Acosta’s operation is, appropriately enough, modest in the extreme. He works in part of a mill building that’s been converted to a startup space for entrepreneurs and lives rent-free in a residential program provided by a nonprofit in exchange for volunteer work. For a working model, Acosta has only a pile of reclaimed wood in his mill office that he hopes to use for the frame of his first tiny house.
He does have a team of mentors and advisers provided by the accelerator program in Lowell who will help him over the next year, said David Parker, chief executive of Entrepreneurship for All.
“Fran has this sort of magical way of convincing folks not only that it’s the right idea, but that he’s got a solution to it and that he’s going to make it happen,” Parker said.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Acosta has lived much of his life in Lawrence, where he’s seen rents soar and friends become homeless. He, too, worries about ever affording to own a home and avoid being trapped in a lifelong cycle of renting that plagues many in this city, including members of his family.
“I’m still working on the approach and how this business model is going to work,’’ Acosta said, “but the idea is we want people to become homeowners.”