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.
“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.
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.