Tiny homes, big ideas: Could downsizing see an upswing in Atlanta?

Nestled in a wooded RV park south of Atlanta, Larry Singleton’s home stands out. With its beige wooden siding, exterior shutters and a metal roof, it’s technically not an RV. This is a tiny home.

Singleton lives his life in just 230 square feet, and at the forefront of what he sees as a growing real estate trend in metro Atlanta.

“I absolutely love it,” said Singleton, 67. “I have everything I need here.”

Construction is starting this month in Clarkston on what developers said is the first “tiny home neighborhood” in Georgia: eight smaller-than-normal houses sharing a half-acre lot and surrounding a common yard area. The “tiny home movement” has not become widespread since it began more than 10 years ago, but proponents are hoping the time is coming for the industry.

“Everybody ran into the problem that I had, with finding a place to park it,” Singleton said, explaining why he ended up surrounded by campers.

As home prices in metro Atlanta rise and the population grows, some see downsizing as the answer. But analysts said developers will continue to face challenges as they navigate decades-old zoning laws written for large, single-family homes. Tiny homes also tend to be more expensive per square foot than bigger ones. But even with all that, little home neighborhoods present a possible avenue for addressing soaring home prices that leave some out of ownership.

"It's going to become more popular. It's going to be driving a lot," said Will Johnston, the founder and executive director of the MicroLife Institute, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that promotes minimalism and tiny houses. "We can make new rules."

Credit: Courtesy of Will Johnston

Credit: Courtesy of Will Johnston

Johnston's organization is behind The Cottages on Vaughan tiny home project in Clarkston, which city officials approved last May. The homes range in size from 250 to 500 square feet, and could cost between $130,000 and $140,000, Johnston said. When it was given the green light, the MicroLife Institute said the development would be the first neighborhood of homes under 500 square feet to be sold in Georgia.

The houses will have covered porches and a studio-like feel inside — one bedroom, one bathroom and an open space that includes a kitchen, dining area and living space. They also have storage space in a loft. Outside, the homes have lawns and a shared green space and fire pit.

And they’re in very high demand. Johnston said they have 800 people on a list of those interested in the homes, and some have already been pre-approved for the eight under construction. Weather permitting, developers hope to have the neighborhood open in the next six months.

Similar neighborhoods have gotten approval in other parts of metro area, including Fayetteville and East Point.

But some tiny home fans, like Singleton, choose to take matters into their own hands — literally. Over the course of two summers he built his home, which is on wheels but can be put on a foundation, designing it down to the half-inch. He had built and designed custom homes for 20 years, but his business failed during the 2008 recession so he began teaching construction at McIntosh High School.

Since moving into his tiny home in 2018, he now enjoys a fairly normal retirement, if on a smaller scale. He called his home a “labor of love” with a “man-cave-chic” design. The interior amenities include a washer and dryer, full-size refrigerator, television and pullout couch. He’s gotten so passionate about the shift toward downsizing that he now serves on the board of the MicroLife Institute.

The “tiny house movement” began to gain mainstream momentum about 10 years ago and even inspired television shows like “Tiny House Nation” and “Tiny House Hunters.”

But experts estimate tiny homes still account for a — well, tiny — percentage of U.S. home sales. The median size of a completed single-family house in the county was almost 2,400 square feet in 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

One roadblock is the current state of zoning laws across metro Atlanta. Many local ordinances are geared toward larger, traditional houses, making it more difficult for developers who want to build unconventional tiny home projects like the one in Clarkston, Johnston said. In 2017, Clarkston passed a special zoning ordinance allowing for clusters of small homes.

Over the last several years, Atlanta and Decatur approved changes to their zoning laws allowing for "accessory dwelling units," which are essentially small homes located on the same lot as a larger house.

“I know some builders that have been trying to get rezoning and approval from various municipalities, but it’s been slow-going,” said Eugene James, the regional director for real estate analysis company Metrostudy. “They’re not sure how to handle it, so are the municipalities ready to tackle this issue? No, not in my opinion.”

Meanwhile, home prices in the region have been steadily rising since 2012 and are expected to continue increasing, according to real estate database Zillow.

In Clarkston, where the median household income is about $64,500, the median home value is almost $190,000, more than the cost of the new tiny homes, according to Zillow. Across DeKalb County, the median price of listed homes is $275,000.

While tiny homes and their lower prices offer more affordable entry into home ownership, the price per square foot can be more expensive than their more spacious counterparts. But James thinks there is “enough demand to support more of these tiny homes cottages or villages” as more people move to Atlanta and look to become homeowners.

Since the Clarkston project was approved, Johnston has seen interest grow for similar projects. Last month, he said, 70 people from around the country attended a workshop where Johnston spoke about how to develop “pocket neighborhoods.”

But even the biggest tiny home fans know that downsizing is not for everyone.

“There need to be more options,” Johnston said. “We are not telling anybody … to live in a smaller box. We are trying to pave the way.”

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