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Habitat for Humanity’s New Affordable Housing Model: ‘Kinda Tiny’ Homes

Athens Area Habitat for Humanity recently completed two 700-square-foot "kinda tiny houses" in the Brooklyn neighborhood near Hawthorne Avenue. Credit: Sarah Ann White/file

Dorsey Village has two new residents and a pair of freshly completed, adorable kinda-tiny homes. Situated at the bottom of New Hope Drive’s steep hill in the Athens Area Habitat for Humanity-built community, the houses represent a new model of affordable housing suited for Athens-Clarke County’s unique challenges.

Habitat leadership and volunteers, private builders and other contributors to the project joined Mayor Kelly Girtz and the public on Apr. 26 to dedicate the houses. In addition to hosting open houses, homeowners Faye Hill, a retired housekeeper at Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital, and veteran Nicholas Floyd were presented with their keys. 

“It’s my very first home. This is a very, very special day for me,” Hill said. “I’ve been blessed.”

Her and Floyd’s new houses are unique in multiple ways. Not only are they among the few Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) homes sold in Athens-Clarke County, they mark one potential solution to the lack of affordable housing plaguing Athens.

Limited land resources and soaring rents on traditionally-sized houses leave Athens’ working class without homeownership options, said Habitat’s executive director, Spencer Frye, who is also a state representative. He and his colleagues designed the project to take advantage of a loophole in Athens’ zoning policy: Homes in single-family neighborhoods must be at least 1,000 square feet, but those in multifamily zones have a minimum of 600 square feet, allowing for “kinda tiny” homes. Thus, 190 and 195 New Hope Drive are each between 700 and 800 square feet—more than the 500 square feet or less in truly tiny homes, but significantly smaller and more efficient than traditional homes.

“I really wanted to show two things. Number one: We can build small houses, and they look good, and they feel good. Number two: We should be able to choose our own sizes and get rid of these policies that stop smart development from happening,” Frye said.

Habitat has advocated ridding Athens of its zoning policies, which Frye considers vestiges of segregation, for years. Girtz’s task force on the subject, the Inclusionary Housing Working Group, is making progress. Just last month, the first phase of their effort to develop inclusionary zoning was unanimously passed by the Athens-Clarke County Commission. The amendment implements rewards for developers of multi-family residential projects who have units designated for affordable housing. 

“Getting a mayor and commission that understands the importance of the work that we’re doing and is willing to take the steps to look at the codes that preclude cost manageable housing in this community has been a lifetime achievement for me,” Frye said. “The inclusionary zoning rule they just passed—we asked them to do that almost 20 years ago. We finally got people elected that could do it. That’s why I’m so excited.”

Girtz attested to his pleasure at kinda-tiny homes in his speech at the dedication. He said the Inclusionary Housing Group is currently working on the second phase, which involves unique models like tiny homes and how to incorporate them into single-family neighborhoods. Code updates could be completed by late 2022.

“We really need to bring as many tools to the table as possible to increase opportunities,” Girtz said. “I’m glad to see Habitat innovating and finding some different models for residential life in Athens.”

Though the project yielded two charming, environmentally sustainable and fully functioning homes, construction was not smooth sailing. COVID-19 and supply chain hiccups caused significant delays. And because of Habitat’s global policy of no volunteers on site in response to COVID-19, the homes were finished by private builders. 

“I could have been out here every day for two years, and still it would have been in the same spot,” Frye said. “But Faye and Nick were so patient, and they understood. I’m just happy that we were able to get them to this point.”

Kinda-tiny homes are a step in the right direction, but Frye said real progress necessitates a shift in the narrative about homeownership. “I always knew that I would be able to buy my own home, but in some places, in some families, they don’t talk about that. Why? Because we’ve trained them as a society not to think about being able to own property. That’s a travesty,” Frye said.

A newspaper headline of Jimmy Carter’s urge of “fresh faith in the old dream” hangs in Frye’s office and inspires him in building an Athens where homeownership is accessible and equitable, new kinda-tiny homes and onward. “That’s what this needs to be,” Frye said. “Focusing on getting people to have new faith in an old dream.”