Calhoun, Georgia, sued by proponents of tiny homes project

Contributed photo from Conor Beck / Tiny House Hand Up Executive Director Cindy Tucker believes Calhoun's ban on tiny homes is discriminatory.

Calhoun, Georgia, rejected a zoning request for a tiny homes development last month that would have allowed the construction of six cottage homes at the intersection of Beamer Road and Harris Beamer Road, with the idea of building more.

The homes would have been 540 to 600 square feet, part of a national trend of tiny homes as an antidote to ever-more-expensive housing.

Now, Tiny House Hand Up Inc., a nonprofit focused on providing and promoting affordable housing in Gordon County, has filed a lawsuit arguing the city's zoning restrictions violate the state constitution.

Executive Director Cindy Tucker said everything started in 2016 when she and a handful of others founded the organization with the goal of creating more affordable housing in the area.

The cost of rent was high, and it was difficult for many locals to afford, she said, which made it nearly impossible for those same people to build wealth. It was a problem she wanted to solve, and her solution was tiny homes.

The homes, which Tucker would come to call "cottage homes," would feature standard-size lots so that homeowners could expand later if they had the desire and ability to do so. They would also be foundation-built and governed by a homeowner's association - in this case, Tiny House Hand Up - and would follow guidelines that Tucker said would ensure the community was well maintained.

The only difference in this neighborhood and any other subdivsion, she said, would be the size of the homes. The goal was to provide an untraditional pathway for traditional homeownership.

In November 2019, Tiny House Hand Up secured a donation of about 8 acres of undeveloped land at the intersection of Beamer Road and Harris Beamer Road, upon which members of the group hoped to build a community of six homes called "Cottages at King Corner."

The homes in the community would range from 540 to 600 square feet and would have a maximum of two bedrooms. They would also come with their own kitchen, living room and covered porches.

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Eventually, Tucker said the plan was to grow the community to include 20 to 30 homes. Tiny House Hand Up proceeded to develop housing plans, secure financial support from a bank and prepare contractors, but the project failed to gain the support of the city because the proposed homes were deemed too small.

Calhoun's zoning laws include a rule that says all homes must be at least 1,100 square feet, with some residential zones requiring even larger homes of at least 1,800 square feet. Coming into compliance with that footage requirement would add anywhere from $65,000 to $90,000 to each home's building cost and would therefore make the homes less affordable, so Tucker said the organization decided to apply for a variance request in August.

During a public hearing on Oct. 11, several citizens spoke about the variance request. Butch Layson, who said his family has been in the process of developing a nearby subdivision, said he was concerned about the effect the Cottages at King Corner would have on property values in the surrounding area.

"I'm all for affordable housing," he said. "I think it's the wrong way to go about it."

Other residents like Austin Hawkins, who lives on Beamer Road, and Robert Taylor, who lives on Harris Beamer Road, said they were concerned that a homeowners association run by Tiny House Hand Up might not be able to enforce the rules it hopes to with success. They said they were concerned about trash piling up in the area, occupancy restrictions and parking.

Despite the discussion, the matter did not come to a vote on Oct. 11 because no council members made a motion to bring it up for a vote.

That is when Tiny House Hand Up decided to file a lawsuit.

"We had exhausted every path and avenue to make this happen and felt we owed it to those who supported us over the last five and a half years to pursue this to the full extent that we could," Tucker told the Times Free Press by phone Monday.

The Institute for Justice, a national public-interest law firm that seeks to defend individual liberties through litigation, has partnered with Tiny House Hand Up in the lawsuit, which was filed in Gordon County Superior Court on Wednesday.

Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Erica Smith Ewing said the lawsuit argues the city's minimum home size requirement violates the state constitution's due process clause, which only allows zoning regulations that limit the use of private property if they "bear a substantial relation to public health, safety, morality or general welfare."

(READ MORE: GBI: Gordon County Commission Chair Becky Hood under investigation)

According to Ewing, Calhoun's ban doesn't meet that standard.

"Nothing about making a home smaller makes it less safe. These proposed homes would comply with all the city's building requirements and would be completely safe," Ewing said by phone Monday. "The only reason people have given for why these shouldn't be built is because people want to keep low-income people out of the city, which is horrible."

Ewing said people have shown up to public hearings to oppose Tiny House Hand Up because they were worried the homes would attract low-income residents. Tucker has heard similar complaints.

"People say they don't want riff-raff coming in to ruin their neighborhood, but having people who want to stay and improve their properties would only improve the neighborhood," Tucker said.

To those who worry tiny homes would lead to less well-maintained homes and yards, she said that is no more likely than at any other housing development.

All things considered, Tucker said the city "seems to want separate rules and regulations for people who want smaller homes, and that's discriminatory."

Until a few months ago, the property was zoned for industrial use, something Ewing said was further proof the city is attempting to keep out low-income residents.

"They could have built a truck terminal, warehouse, a refinery or scrap metal processing center in the same place, and they would have been able to build that, but they're not allowed to build a beautiful neighborhood of tiny cottage homes," she said. "The only reason to ban smaller homes is to keep out people who could afford to buy them and to inflate property values in the city by forcing people to build unnecessarily large homes."

That, she said, is unconstitutional.

"Where a person wants to live is a very personal choice. Calhoun shouldn't make those personal choices illegal," Ewing said. "Tiny homes are perfectly safe. Plenty of people live in tiny homes, and plenty of people in Calhoun are living in tiny homes that they would not be able to build today that were there before these laws were passed."

Calhoun City Attorney George Govignon said Monday he could not comment on ongoing litigation.

(READ MORE: Gordon County officials encourage vaccines as hospital reaches 109% capacity)

As litigation continues, Tucker said she hopes everyone in Calhoun and Gordon County will consider the importance of providing for those who are struggling due to the pandemic. Economic conditions are particularly difficult right now, she said, and most people are unable to build big, brand new homes.

"The housing situation here is going to be bad for a while. The cost of materials to build with has skyrocketed. If you tried to price a piece of plywood lately, the cost is astronomical, so a piece that cost $8 four years ago can now costs upwards of $16. It's going to continue to be a problem," she said. "Shutting someone out because of square footage is not right. People are seriously struggling like they never have before. When we started this there wasn't a pandemic, but all of us on the board and who've worked for Tiny House Hand Up have an attitude of service and feel we have an obligation to reach out and help. I have to admit I don't really get people who object to reaching out to offer help."

Contact Kelcey Caulder at [email protected] or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.