In 1909, the American Woolen Company opened the world’s largest mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Today that factory stands half demolished and forgotten… a fitting symbol for the entire city. Lawrence’s 80,000 residents have a median household income of $35,000 a year. (The state average is almost $70,000.) 40% of them, largely immigrants, spend more than half that income on housing, and may fear they will never afford to break the rent cycle and own a home.
But they might stand a chance if Franallen Acosta gets his way. The young entrepreneur (and Lawrence resident) has a plan to fill vacant lots with tiny houses, perhaps 5 or 6 on a quarter-acre lot. He named his project Mi Casita, which is Spanish for “my tiny house.” As this Boston Globe article explains, Acosta is in talks with city officials to relax the zoning restrictions and to permit houses as small as 300 square feet.
Part of Acosta’s plan is to leave the houses off-grid, which lowers utility costs but might be a legal dealbreaker. City officials in general must show a conservative concern for the safety of residents, and to that end they’ll want to see unlimited access to electricity, water, and sewer – things an off-grid house cannot guarantee.
For example, renewable energy like solar power is unreliable, and so far no battery exists that can singlehandedly smooth out all the cloudy days. As an alternative to plumbing, a rainwater collection system requires conservation to provide sufficient water, especially when your tiny house has only 300 square feet of roof to collect from. Whereas the city might approve a composting toilet (although it will reduce demand for the houses), they’ll probably require a disposal system for greywater – the vast quantities that drain from sinks, showers, and washing machines.
Acosta believes the mortgage on a tiny house could be half the average rent in the city. If he’s right, the houses could help to stem Lawrence’s affordability crisis. Acosta sees home ownership as a path out of poverty, a way to permanently protect residents from the ever-rising rent payments that have made some of his friends homeless. His noble goal is shared by Entrepreneurship for All, the Lowell-based accelerator program that gave him the capital to get Mi Casita off the ground. Click here if you’d like to help him.
Personal note: I grew up in Andover, which neighbors Lawrence across the Merrimack River. Any Bay Stater will tell you that Andover=rich and Lawrence=poor. That’s a problem, and I support any initiative to thwart this ugly stereotype.