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An experimental ‘tiny houses’ neighborhood debuts in Clarkston

The fire pit in the common lawn area of the Cottages on Vaughn tiny houses neighborhood in Clarkston. Credit: Kelly Jordan

An experiment in the “tiny house” movement has begun in Clarkston, where a micro-development called the Cottages on Vaughan was scheduled to celebrate a ribbon-cutting July 17.

The fire pit in the common lawn area of the Cottages on Vaughan tiny houses neighborhood in Clarkston. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The Cottages is a mini-neighborhood of eight tiny houses, all around 500 square feet or less, arranged to face each other across a common lawn with edible plants and a fire pit. It may be the first such development in the Southeast and is certainly a far cry from the tiny-home movements usual mobile homes or one-off backyard structures.

The development was led by MicroLife Institute, an Atlanta-based nonprofit founded by Will Johnston, who dropped out of the city’s corporate life and became an advocate of minimalism. In June, he also became a resident of his own Cottages project.

“Why are we building McMansions for four or five people when the average household is two or 2.5?” Johnston asked in a recent interview inside the micro living room of his tiny house. “We built this to spark a conversation.”

Part hippie, part hipster, the Cottages are indeed likely to fuel talk about downsizing, affordability, wider choices in housing types, and gentrification in Clarkston, a small DeKalb County city known for a highly diverse population thanks to immigration and welcoming of international refugees. The Cottages were built on what was formerly a vacant, wooded lot at 1182 Vaughn St., and quickly sold, with buyers moving in starting this spring.

MicroLife Institute founder Will Johnston outside his own tiny house at the Cottages. Credit: John Ruch

When MicroLife began planning the Cottages over two-and-half years ago, much of the early press talk was about an affordable home ownership option. Back then, there was talk of selling the homes for $100,000 — a hefty price per square foot, but more attainable for lower-income buyers. But in the end, the sales prices ranged from $165,000 to over $200,000, says Johnston, attributing that in part to rising construction costs. (Several of the homes have optional solar panels for electricity, adding $8,000 to $10,000 to the price.)

Affordability is an important issue to Johnston — “Homes need to be homes, not portfolio investments, in my opinion,” he says — but it’s not the only motive for the Cottages. Other intents are creating community rather than separating houses with huge lawns, and to avoid the environmental costs of oversized homes.

“We have unfortunately mixed up isolation for privacy,” Johnston says of traditional suburban housing developments. The Cottages offer single-family seclusion but also that common area. “I love going over to my neighbors’ for tea,” he says.

The kitchen area of Johnston’s tiny house. Credit: Kelly Jordan

A big goal of MicroLife is promoting diversity in housing types, with the idea that building more will lower prices as well.

DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry, who was Clarkston mayor during the early stages of the Cottages’ planning, says the project is an important way to diversify housing with a walkable, community-oriented and energy-saving approach.

“The Cottages on Vaughn represent a new way forward in addressing the housing crisis of metro Atlanta,” Terry said. “Communities built with intention, not cookie cutters, are what more and more people are looking for.”

Terry says local leaders should look at the Cottages and think about how the model could fit into their long-term plans. “The lessons learned here can be applied across all of Georgia. And I hope it will lead to more change,” he said. “There is nothing like a dream of the future.”

Johnston says the nonprofit is working with rural Jackson County, near Athens, on a housing study to prepare for such possible futures as an influx of teleworkers that could price out current residents. MicroLife gained much development knowledge while working for years to change Clarkston’s zoning code to allow the Cottages. Johnston said MicroLife intends to share that knowledge in workshops for other developers and nonprofits looking to shake up zoning codes beyond the traditional model.

As one example, Johnston’s a fan of what he calls “Golden Girls” homes, after the 1980s sitcom about four unrelated women who share a house — a practice that would be illegal under many modern zoning codes. In that vein, MicroLife is a partner on another recent pilot project to build a single-family house for a 71-year-old woman who will share some of the rooms with single mothers and their children and provide them with mentoring. MicroLife and the nonprofit CHRIS 180 recently broke ground at 981 Ashby Terrace in Atlanta’s Washington Park on the project for Deborah Glover, who has spent decades living in the area in a shed without water or electricity.

A view of the Cottages mini-neighborhood. Credit: John Ruch

Johnston came to the tiny homes world after his own extreme downsizing. He used to work at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a marketer and organizer of such events as the Peachtree Road Race. After eight years, he quit at age 33, sold his possessions, and went backpacking in New Zealand, where he ended up working on a vineyard. He jokes that people always assume that’s where he learned about tiny homes — “No, that’s where I discovered a great pinot noir.”

He returned to Atlanta about six years ago and, as an avowed minimalist, got into the tiny homes movement. He founded MicroLife as “Tiny House Atlanta” and ran the Decatur Tiny House Festival. An Avondale Estates version is scheduled to debut in October.

The fellow residents at the Cottages include a grad student, a nurse, an engineer, a Sign Language translation company manager and a ballet instructor. And they’re going to be neighborly to the public as well, with occasional tours offered starting Aug. 21.

Johnston’s own home is well-appointed and cozy at 492 square feet, plus about 200 square feet of loft space, part of which he intends to use as an office when a ladder is finally installed, as well as attic storage space. (Seven of the houses are that size, with the other an initial model that is 250 square feet.) Several of the homes have solar panels for electricity.

For more about MicroLife and the Cottages on Vaughan, see microlifeinstitute.org.

Photos by Kelly Jordan

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Johnston’s name and to clarify the difference between loft and attic space in the houses.

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15 Comments

  1. Mary July 18, 2021 1:21 am

    Sounds like a really good plan to me

    AryReport

    Reply
  2. Angie T July 18, 2021 12:32 pm

    As a single person that works for a great company that doesn’t get paid alot buying a tiny house was something I wanted to do. Unfortunately Atlanta makes it hard unless there is already established community.
    Why are we left behind? How can we give back of people are afraid of each other?Report

    Reply
    1. Tee July 18, 2021 12:45 pm

      I believe in the near future it will be easier to find one of these properties. I also think we have lost the ability to be neighboring to each other. Hopefully this concept will trickle down to more areasReport

      Reply
  3. Pamela July 18, 2021 4:59 pm

    Hmmm, these houses look pretty cookie cutter to me.Report

    Reply
  4. B July 18, 2021 8:19 pm

    Eight feet shy of 800 square feet is anything but a tiny house.Report

    Reply
  5. Gena Suber July 19, 2021 2:06 am

    How can I get I tough with someone I really would love to get one for my husband and I and our small dog . I love tiny houses and and it is just the two of us this would be great .Report

    Reply
  6. Val July 19, 2021 7:38 am

    It was a great idea when it made sense a decade ago. Paying $200k for a tiny house defeats the purpose. There are still regular sized houses in my market for that price. When I was interested years ago, prices were 35-60k. Make it make sense again and I will definitely be the first to sign up.Report

    Reply
  7. Selena July 20, 2021 1:12 am

    I think this is an amazing and much needed answer to housing issues. So many of us are stuck in the middle; can’t afford to buy, don’t want to rent , make too much for help. I live in Florida in the Tampa Bay Area. They recently (last year) opened a THOWbcommunity that is affordable and adorable. But, the demand is so high they were all gone in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, other than parks they’re not allowed anywhere. The counties need to make changes to help us because times are changing fast and an opportunity like this will keep ALOT of good, hard working people from being homeless. Help us help us. It’s that simple. We aren’t asking for money or free land just change the laws so we can obtain home ownership.Report

    Reply
  8. Janet VandenBerg July 20, 2021 8:12 am

    It would be amazing if something could be done for senior citizens in Emmet, Cheboygan or Charlevoix Counties on Northern Michigan. There is not sufficient economical housing and/or apartments in these three counties were you would have to pay $800 – $900 plus in rent. The concern for many seniors is they love this area but it currently is marketed for those huge waterfront homes on the area lakes, etc.Report

    Reply
  9. Jennifer July 21, 2021 5:05 am

    I’ve recently become very interested in tiny houses. But $165-200k is a ridiculously high price range for homes that are less than 300 to less than 500sqft! From what I’ve read, you can have one custom built for $60k, give or take. Granted, you need to have or purchase the land to put it on, but it still seems like a tremendously hefty price. I know I wouldn’t pay $200k for an almost 500sqft home with no private yard space for my dog.Report

    Reply
    1. Janece Terry July 21, 2021 3:07 pm

      I was thinking the same. These projects, like the tiny home movement itself, always start out well intentioned price wise but as interest grows so does the price. So many buyers can afford to pay these inflated prices that the people in most need are priced out of the market and continue to live on the street.Report

      Reply
  10. Ricardo Sanchez July 23, 2021 7:38 am

    great job congratulation I interesting to learn more about minimalistReport

    Reply
  11. Sharon Cruz July 23, 2021 1:43 pm

    I cannot understand how the cost is so great 35,000
    To 60,000 is more responsible this is supposed to help people with lower incomes come on If you really are wanting to help then make it more affordable for peopleReport

    Reply
  12. Merridy Cumpton August 2, 2021 12:04 am

    Would lime to get involved but in my area, and I agree the prices have changed dramatically since I started think I g about one for myself, problem is finding land and zoning laws that allow it. This nation needs housing ideas for all of us out here on a budget…contact me!Report

    Reply
  13. Contractorfinder September 29, 2021 2:24 am

    To me, this is a great and long overdue solution to the nation’s housing crisis. People who can’t afford to purchase, but don’t want to rent, or earn too much money to qualify for assistance, are often caught in a limbo. Two and a half years ago, when MicroLife first started thinking about the Cottages, a lot of the early publicity focused on the idea of a low-cost home ownership alternative. In the past, the houses were going to be sold for $100,000, which was a steep price per square foot, but more affordable for those with lesser incomes.Report

    Reply

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