TIFTON — When Debra Edenfield built her 720 square-foot cottage on Whiddon Mill Road, she wasn’t looking to start a trend.

“I just knew I wanted to live here,” she said. “I though it was just beautiful.”

Edenfield, who owns the Sisterville Trailer Park with her sister Deedie Morgan, designed and oversaw the construction of her small home.

“I drew my own plans and had them put to a blueprint,” she said. “I love it. I put all my personal stuff in here, stuff I collected throughout my life. I thought it up in my mind and said that’s what I want to do.”

The house that was previously on the property was in poor shape, according to Edenfield, and it took a couple of years to clean up the area and build her dream home.

“I started in March of 2017 cleaning it up,” she said. “The house was falling in, the barn was falling in.”

Her home was designed to fit her lifestyle and needs, but Edenfield said that her doorbell is constantly ringing with people wanting to look at her house.

“People will ask me if I’m starting a tiny home community,” she said. “I’ve had people come and want to buy the house, even while the contractors were in here working on it. I’ve had people knock on my door and want to look at this house and they’re like, ‘This is what I want. This is all I want. Are you building a tiny house community?’ I wish we did have one. I can’t tell you how many people have stopped and looked. Lots of people.”

Interest in small homes

Interest in smaller homes, particularly tiny homes, has grown over the past decade, but most of the interest has centered in urban areas where living space is at a premium. Now the movement is reaching smaller cities like Tifton.

Tiny homes, which are the subject of multiple building and lifestyles shows, are defined as homes that are 400 square feet or smaller, according to Urban Redevelopment Authority Director Bruce Green.

“There is a general rule of thumb that the tiny house is perceived to be mobile,” he said. “It’s built on some sort of frame with wheels.”

These tiny homes are often built on trailers to try and get around city ordinances, which restrict both how big and how small homes can be. Green said that ordinances will have to change to accommodate cottages and tiny homes legally.

“Every justification is somewhat different from the other,” he said.  “There are a couple of communities like Atlanta and Decatur that have been looking at it, but nowhere has anyone done a real, exhaustive approach to a tiny house.”

Cottages, on the other hand, have been looked at. Cottages are between 400 square feet and 1,000 square feet and are easier to insert into existing zoning ordinances.

“What happens with these things is the NIMB factor,” he said. “‘Not In My Backyard.’ It all sounds great, but when we were having the conversations a couple of years ago, we were talking about mother-in-law or granny flats, and the question came up, ‘Who is opposed to granny?’ That puts a whole different light on how people perceive these things.”

Green said that it is typically not easy to add these structures because they’re not allowed by law, at least in the city. He said potential builders also have to have available land, adding that South Tifton may be a good pilot area for this.

“South Tifton is a good example,” he said. “There are a lot of vacant lots there. I think there is the possibility of investigation. You’ve had houses there that have, for whatever reason, deteriorated and been removed, so we have the existing infrastructure. Whether that infrastructure is adequate, we don’t know. We’ll have to go in and see. I think if Tifton creatively looked at this movement and spent some time on it, we might  become one of the first communities in Georgia to seriously adopt an ordinance to allow for this particular zoning segment.”

To do that, Green said that zoning and ordinances will have to change. The cottage and tiny house movement have one thing in their favor, according to Green – zoning and land use laws typically follow building trends instead of defining them.

“You ask the question, which came first, the trend or the code,” he said. “Actually, it’s the trend that pushes it because (an earlier) explosive small house movement occurred after World War II simply because there weren’t enough houses for everybody to live in when servicemen came back home.”

Green said that some of these post-WWII cottages can still be seen along Ferry Lake Road.

“All the young servicemen, they had a wife and child, then two children,” Green said. “So then you had this need for quick, affordable housing.”

He said that starting in the 1980s, the trend moved towards very large homes.

“If you look at a lot of developments around bigger cities, enormous houses were built on large tracts of land,” he said. “And actually, many county governments in Georgia require 5 acres of property in order to build a new house on it. It’s the whole concept of, ‘We’ve got lots of land, let’s build it out.’ The problem with that is in these urban counties you get this massive spread of residential development over literally square miles. Then when everybody has to go to work at eight o’clock in the morning, they all get out on the highways and it leads to congestion.”

Green said that governments and private non-profits began talking about how to rebuild cities for the past decade, and rather than spreading out, the trend has swung towards repurposing space and going smaller.

“It may not even be industrial or adaptive reuse,” Green said. “It may be brand new apartment construction. A perfect example is the eight acres where the old Horizon Mills was.”

He said that was a perfect place to put small houses or tiny houses.

“We have some wonderful open land opportunities within the urban redevelopment area,” he said.  

Benefits of a cottage, tiny home community

When asked why there has been a renewed interest in smaller homes, particularly in cottages and tiny homes, Green had a one-word answer – affordability.

Smaller homes have not only the lure of being on-trend, they are also attractively low-cost to build and maintain. According to an article about tiny house costs by Margaret Heidenry on Realtor.com, the average cost of building a tiny home ranges from $25,000 to $35,000, which is far below the average price of building a traditional sized home.

According to HomeAdvisor.com, it typically costs between $102,500 and $393,000 to build a 2,000 square foot home in Georgia.  

And it’s not just individuals who are looking at the costs. Municipalities are looking at updating ordinances to allow for smaller home sizes as a way to address the affordable housing crisis.

Green said that one way municipalities are trying to work with smaller homes is by designating them accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.  

While ADUs cost more to build than tiny homes, averaging $180,833 for a detached new construction ADU, that is both lower in cost than a larger home and comes with the benefit of the builder not having to buy land or pay for new utility hookups.

Tiny homes are also being used by municipalities to help those struggling with homelessness.

A community of five tiny homes has been built in Macon with the intent to help homeless veterans get off the street and back on their feet by providing them with stability and an address, which is necessary to get a job.  

Then there is the “accessory” part – these ADUs can be built next to a family member’s home. This is particularly attractive for older adults.

Aging populations are increasingly turning to smaller home footprints as a way to age in place, according to Green.

“There are 72 million aging Baby Boomers,” he said. “That’s only a little less than a third of the population of the United States. They’re not going to go out and look for a 3,000 square foot house. You have a lot of single women in their 80s and 90s, who want to live in a community where they feel safe, but they aren’t ready for a facility, which are incredibly expensive. That’s something we have to look at from a land use development, how do we create these communities?

Aging in place needs to be discussed. We as a community need to have this conversation, and it just happens that tiny houses are so interesting and so unique. They’re not for everybody, but it starts the conversation, maybe if not teeny tiny houses but maybe cottages.”

A benefit for everyone living in a smaller footprint home is that the home generally costs less in utilities, making living them more sustainable.

“In the South Tifton redevelopment plan, one of the things we wrote in was the concept of sustainability,” he said. “You cannot go in and build and rehab houses in a neighborhood where people aren’t making $80,000 a year. They might be making $20,000 a year. So how do they pay their power bill, how do they pay utilities? So again we go back to looking at what we need as a community. How do we take care of one another?”

Green said he believes that building new cottages or tiny homes would maintain affordability for those who critically need housing without pricing existing residents out of their current homes, and play to the market among those with moderate incomes who want to build and own.

“We’ve got some exciting things,” he said. “If we put all this together and if we have the cooperation of the city, we might very well come up with a cottage development. There are already beautiful little cottages in South Tifton that could be replicated and would fit in architecturally, creating architecturally significant and contributing affordable housing.”

Back at Home

Edenfield saved money while building her home by saving and reusing as much as she could from the old house in her new one. She said it was also an important tribute to the previous house.

She reused some of the original bead board as cabinet fronts. Some of the original doors were turned into barn doors, since swing doors would take up more space. Her paint scheme was taken from a painting by artist Sandi Wickersham Resnick titled “Chesterville.” It is an American Folk Art piece depicting a small town in New England where one of the houses is blue with red shutters.

Edenfield said she would always point to that house and tell her children that was her house.

“It’s been an experience,” she said. “But here it is. I finally got here.”

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