Most city councilmen want to see their cities get bigger.
David Reddick thinks the best way to do that is by going smaller.
Reddick, councilman for Anniston’s Ward 2, is asking his fellow council members to consider a change to city code to make it easier to build hosues smaller than 900 square feet — a change he believes could restart residential construction in the city.
“Some of our lots are so small, you can’t even build on them under the current code,” he said.
Reddick’s ward covers northern and western Anniston, including the former mill town of Blue Mountain and the majority-black, working class neighborhoods west of downtown. Houses there, he said, are sometimes on lots no more than 30 feet wide — not big enough to build houses of the size the city requires, or to rebuild on the site of an older, crumbling house.
That’s a problem, he said, for a city troubled by both homelessness and a lack of new home construction.
The city does allow exceptions in cases of hardship, Reddick said. But earlier this month, he asked council members to consider policy specifically targeted to “tiny homes” far below the standard home size. Council members seem to support the idea. In a Sept. 3 meeting, they took no action on the issue but say they welcome a review.
The biggest challenge to small homes, though, may come not from the city but from the economics of housing.
Tiny home or smaller house?
Architect Marianne Cusato has a love-hate relationship with the term “tiny house.”
There’s the tiny home you see on home-and-garden television shows, basically a cottage on wheels, owned by young professionals who want a simpler life.
“If people want to live in 200 square feet, then more power to them,” she said. “But not everyone wants to climb into a loft.”
And then there’s the kind of tiny house Cusato, who teaches architecture at Notre Dame, is known for. She’s one of the creators of the “Katrina cottage,” a tiny, site-built house, designed in the style of a traditional New Orleans home, that briefly caught on after Hurricane Katrina as a low-cost alternative to the FEMA trailer. Most of those small houses weren’t technically “tiny homes,” measuring 500-1,000 square feet, but were far smaller than most new homes.
“Tiny homes are not the solution,” Cusato said. “Building smaller is part of the solution, but ‘tiny homes’ is easier to say.”
Cusato said square-footage requirements for homes are an artifact of the immediate post-World-War-II period. A post-war housing shortage and GI Bill mortgage support for returning soldiers led to a boom in suburban development, where houses were bigger than in the city, with bigger yards. The problem, she said, is that increasing numbers of people don’t need a suburban-style house, and can’t afford one. Households are smaller, she said, the population is older and many older people are on fixed incomes.
“A smaller house is easier to clean, and it’s easier to heat and cool,” she said.
Chicken and egg
But many cities simply won’t allow that sort of house to be built, architects say.
“It’s not just Anniston,” said Meghan Walsh, an architect who works with the Rural Studio at Auburn University, which works to design affordable houses low-income people can afford.
Walsh, too, is skeptical of the term “tiny home.” She said it brings to mind a very small house with a flip-up bed, built for mobility. Rural Studio, she said, is more interested in building something solid and affordable, which often means incorporating energy-saving techniques to keep power bills down.
But it also means building small, sometimes smaller than a city will allow. Like the house the group designed for a woman in Opelika, where regulations require at least 800 square feet.
“The homeowner only wanted one bedroom, but she had to get two bedrooms to meet the code,” Walsh said.
But even where codes allow smaller homes, Walsh and Cusato say, affordable homebuilding runs into another problem: paying for the house. Banks often won’t issue mortgages of less than $50,000, Walsh and Cusato both say. Sometimes a mortgage under $100,000 is hard to find, Cusato said.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” Cusato said. To build less expensive houses, she said, bankers need a market for small mortgages. To help create that market, cities need to make smaller houses legal, she said. Even then, she said, small houses aren’t often as cheap as they could be, because there are so few builders accustomed to building small.
An old solution
Anniston has tried the small-house option before. The Right Place, an Anniston agency that works with the homeless, built several small cottages for clients in recent years on a lot near 15th Street. County records show those houses were built with exemptions from the city, with each taking up a little more than 400 square feet. Attempts to reach Right Place officials Friday were unsuccessful.
Habitat for Humanity hasn’t attempted houses under the 900-foot limit locally, the group’s Calhoun County director said, but that’s not a matter of policy for the group.
“The majority of the houses we build are based on the size of the family,” director Amanda Pinson said. “We don’t build with a plan to have more than two children to a bedroom, and we never plan for opposite-sex children to share a bedroom.”
The group’s smallest houses are around 1,000 square feet, Pinson said.
Look online for tiny home builders, and you’ll find dealers in Guntersville and Chattanooga who sell customized small cottages on wheels, with trailer hitches. Attempts to reach those tiny-home sellers were unsuccessful last week.
Gary Day can sell you an 840-square-foot house if you have a place to put it. Day is a sales manager at Clayton Homes of Anniston, which sells manufactured houses in a lot on U.S. 431 in Anniston. The smallest home on his lot is 14 feet wide and 60 feet long, and it fits on a single trailer. The interior layout is one many Alabamians would recognize.
“It is a mobile home,” Day said. The larger houses on his lot don’t have that distinct look, and Day said even small manufactured homes like this one are different from the trailers most people know. They’ve got vinyl siding, shingled roofs and double-paned windows, stronger wood construction and can be put down on a foundation, he said.
In a strong housing market, he said, they’re selling well. The 840-square model will go for about $27,000, with financing from the dealer, he said. They typically go to low-income young families or retirees who need little space.
Some local cities don’t allow mobile homes, he said, but overall demand is high.
“We’re having a record year,” he said.