A few miles from the South Carolina border, a tiny house stands in the forest outside the 380-person town of Martin, Georgia. The 200-square-foot structure, made out of recycled wood as old as the Civil War, has a living room, kitchenette, bathroom, and a lofted bedroom.
“The program is simple and leaves no space without purpose,” says William Carpenter, president-elect of the American Institute of Architects’ local chapter and a Kennesaw State University architecture professor. It’s also inexpensive, costing only $5,000 to build the house that’s now used for artist retreats.
The emerging popularity of tiny homes, a standalone structure that’s less than 400 square feet, has helped cities across the nation address shortages of affordable housing (Washington, D.C.) and homelessness (Portland, Oregon). Yet the trend hasn’t caught on throughout much of the South, including Atlanta, where the construction of tiny homes is currently illegal.
Aside from academic experiments, like the 135-square-foot “SCADpads” built last year in a Midtown parking deck, developers aren’t allowed to build tiny homes inside the Atlanta city limits. Why not? The city’s code prohibits the construction of single-family homes smaller than 750 square feet. Some local governments have created restrictions on the minimum size of “dwellings” prior to the burgeoning tiny house movement. Looking elsewhere in the metro area, Gwinnett and Dekalb counties require single-family homes to be at least 1,000 square feet.
Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall is hoping to change that. Hall represents eastside neighborhoods such as Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park, and says the area has “non-conforming lots” ideal for tiny houses and micro-unit apartments. He envisions a wide variety of different types of people such as college graduates, young professionals, homeless people, and empty nesters occupying the affordable homes.
“Affordable and accessible housing speaks to the need of many Atlantans,” Hall says. “[It would] fit the need for everybody across the spectrum.”
Will Johnston, founder of housing advocacy group Tiny Homes Atlanta, says changing the law would not only address affordability but also enable environmentally conscious people to reduce their carbon footprint. And living in small standalone units, or even apartment complexes filled with a large number micro-units, would allow for denser development in the heart of a sprawling region.
“We’re not creating sustainable neighborhoods anymore—we’re building McMansions,” Johnston says. “Millennials can’t move into the city, and the elderly can’t stay in their homes.”
According to Johnston, the tiny house builders have struggled with securing loans from banks accustomed to funding the construction of larger homes. Without much precedent, lenders don’t want to take an unnecessary financial risk without a proven market for 300-square-foot units. Johnston notes that no loan system specifically designed for the tiny house market has yet emerged.
“There’s no financial incentive yet,” Johnston says. “They have no problem investing billions that they’ll lose in another [investment], but they won’t loan $20,000 for a tiny home.”
For the code to change, the city must examine its outdated laws. If Council approves a pending proposal from Hall, which is expected to happen sometime next month, city planners would then take stock of the potential adjustments to the code over a six-month period. Hall says the study would ideally look at the successes and failures of other cities leading the tiny house movement. According to Carpenter, other cities have tweaked their codes to lower the minimum square footage for residential homes to 300 feet or allowed developers to obtain special variances. In doing so, residents on a shoestring budget would have a path to home ownership, now without leaving the city.
Hall’s vision is not far off from the tiny house roughly 90 miles northeast of Atlanta. Carpenter, whose Decatur-based architecture firm Lightroom built the minimalist house in Martin, also sees those kinds of structures someday coming to Atlanta. But first, he says, the city’s complex laws must be simplified to match those on the state’s outskirts.
“It could introduce tiny houses to a mass population,” Carpenter says. “ . . . The market would be there.”