Will Johnston, the head of the nonprofit developer MicroLife Institute, is bringing the fight against metro Atlanta’s obsession with living large to College Park, with a plan to build a tiny home neighborhood that’s affordable to lower-income residents.
The Fulton County Commission’s chairman, Robb Pitts, told Atlanta Civic Circle a year ago that the county would invest $1 million from its federal COVID-19 relief funds to support the micro-home pilot project, which he hopes will inspire other dense developments.
That initiative is finally getting off the ground, as county commissioners last month approved about $330,000 of that $1 million to fund the MicroLife Institute’s College Park project’s first year of development.
Johnston said College Park can look forward to between six and 12 homes that are under 1,000 square feet—likely less than 500 square feet—and priced between $100,000 and $150,000.
“Our goal is to hit 60% AMI,” he said. “The Cottages on Vaughan hit 60% of AMI just through density alone,” he added, referring to MicroLife’s flagship development in Clarkston, which features eight homes under 500 square feet on a half-acre lot.
These houses are affordably priced because they’re small—and that’s the point. In a metro area lacking real development density, “tiny home communities are a valuable tool in meeting our region’s housing affordability challenges,” said Ernest Brown, the board chair for advocacy group Abundant Housing Atlanta, a member of the national YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) Action movement.
“While tiny homes are certainly not right for every person or family, they are an important contrast to the ongoing trend of larger new construction homes that don’t meet the needs of households that want the benefits of new construction—more customization, energy efficiency, accessibility, etcetera—but not far more house than the typical one- or two-person household needs,” Brown said.
Johnston says just 20% of households in metro Atlanta have four people, but more than 70% of new homes are built for families that size. That means starter homes are increasingly scarce and expensive.
“Culturally, we have defined success as a large home with two cars and a picket fence,” he said. “But now we see younger generations have accepted a no-car and less-space attitude, and we need to start building to that desire, as well as provide opportunities to live closer to walkable connected communities.”
The location for the College Park tiny home project hasn’t been determined, but Fulton County said the development is planned within walking distance of the College Park MARTA station.
Why aren’t tiny homes everywhere?
Restrictive zoning laws that encourage building conventionally sized single-family homes—spanning at least 1,000 square feet—have complicated MicroLife’s mission, Johnston said.
The city of College Park told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that it will approve zoning variances for the Fulton-MicroLife pilot project, so that once construction kicks off, the pint-sized homes can be erected in two or three months.
But you don’t see many tiny homes in the city of Atlanta, Johnston said, because its 40-year old zoning code prohibits anything but conventional single-family homes on more than 60% of the city’s residential land.
The city is currently rewriting its zoning laws, but it remains to be seen how much micro-living will factor into the overhaul.