Cindy Tucker from north Georgia has a vision. She wants to make home ownership affordable for those of modest means. She started a non-profit, Tiny House Hand Up, to make that vision a reality. Now, the group is ready to start building quaint, Southern-style cottages that will be within the price range of many low-income individuals. The plans are for hand-constructed homes—not pre-fab homes or trailers—with small porches and room for gardens.
But there’s a problem; that problem is called the town of Calhoun. It mandates that any house built within the city limits must be at least 1,150 square feet, which instantly puts them out of the price range for the very folks Cindy wants to serve. Tiny House Hand Up wants to build cottages of 540 to 600 square feet. The group wants to build homes that comply with the town’s building code in every way, but just smaller.
Tiny homes are a hot commodity. There are dozens of cable television and streaming shows depicting new homes and the innovative ways they pack a lot into a small space. People consider tiny homes for many reasons, but cost is perhaps the biggest reason.
The price of homes has risen fast and isn’t expected to slow soon. According to real estate website Zillow, home values rose 18% in the last year and are predicted to rise another 13% in the coming year. In Calhoun, home value increases have generally tracked upward with nationwide values.
But Calhoun isn’t typical when it comes to the rate of home ownership. With a poverty rate more than twice the national average, its rate of home ownership is over 36% lower than the nationwide average. Given those facts, you would think Calhoun’s leadership may want to make housing more within reach of its citizens.
But unfortunately, the town is stubborn in its insistence on a minimum square footage for single family homes. Cindy spent years trying to negotiate with Calhoun for permission to build a cottage home community. And when Tiny House Hand Up applied for a zoning variance, the City Council rejected the motion after listening to complaints that the community could lower neighboring property values or invite “riff-raff” into the area.
Absurdly, the town would allow the property to be used for other purposes that could be far more undesirable for neighbors including a truck terminal, warehouse or scrap metal processor. All those uses are permitted while tiny homes are forbidden.
Calhoun is far from the only city in Georgia with minimum square footage requirements and steeper requirements seems to push values up even more. College Park, with its 1,600 square foot minimum saw home prices rise 55% in the past year. The fact that various cities’ minimum square footage requirements vary widely demonstrates how such regulations aren’t about safety but much more about only allowing the “right” people to buy homes in a community.
With no other option, Cindy and Tiny House Hand Up, represented by the Institute for Justice, are now suing Calhoun in state court. Under the Georgia Constitution, zoning restrictions that limit the use of private property must be related to health or safety. Cindy’s small homes will be just as safe as larger homes or McMansion.
Many places across the nation are going through a housing crunch, making home ownership even more of a remote possibility for many Americans. Even worse, steep rises in housing costs contribute to increased homelessness.
Building smaller, less costly homes is an obvious solution to the affordability crisis but complex zoning codes make tiny homes impossible in places where they could do real good. Unfortunately, it is much easier to grow zoning restrictions than trim them back. Zoning is like plaque in the veins that builds up and blocks off the bloodstream.
It’s time for towns like Calhoun to stop letting senseless red tape and mindless NIMBYism stand in the way of getting people into solidly built homes they can afford. Tiny House Hand Up is ready to build, but first either the courts or the town need to take a pickaxe to the zoning code.