After working in corporate America for more than a decade, Will Johnston decided he’d had enough.
“I reached a point and said I am done with this,” he says.
He quit his job, sold most of his belongings, moved out of his 900-square foot space in Ponce Springs Lofts, and set off on a three- month backpacking trip across New Zealand.
Still not sure what he wanted to do when he returned to Atlanta last April, Johnston started reading and hearing about tiny houses and a new movement for people who wanted to live smaller and simpler.
“I was hearing about people who wanted to simplify their life by reducing space and maximizing their time, and reducing debt and not buying into a consumer nature,” he says.
His interest was piqued. So much so that he started Tiny Homes Atlanta, a meetup group of some 270 people. The group meets regularly and members share a philosophy that includes not being forced to work jobs they don’t like simply to keep an expensive house over their heads either through rent or mortgages.
“The tiny house movement is the tip of the iceberg of our society having a conversation about housing and why it is so expensive,” he says. “Why are we doing this to ourselves? My goal is to focus on affordable—I hate the term affordable—but attainable housing.”
Living and buying a home in Atlanta is not cheap, he notes. Houses in Cabbagetown with maybe just 700 square feet can still sell for more than $200,000. But a tiny house at 176 square feet of usable space, which can be built on a trailer and towed by your heavy-duty pickup truck to various living locations, can be built for approximately $66,000.
Right now, Johnston, who is debt-free, lives with friends in Spire.Midtown, a luxury apartment and condo building. And he understands he is fortunate he can live the way he does.
Not many people can quit their jobs like he did and still have a safe space to live. “I know a lot of people who are trapped,” he says.
His eventual goal is to be able to buy a plot of land and build a tiny house—but land is so valuable in Atlanta. An attempt to buy a 720-square-foot house in Adair Park was quashed when the bank told him they would not loan him the money unless he made the structure bigger or demolished it to put up a bigger house, he said.
He has visions of building tiny house villages along the Atlanta Beltline, or constructing tiny houses in blighted neighborhoods. And he’s hoping to build a tiny house this year to use as an educational resource for Atlantans wanting to learn more about the topic.
“Moving from 5,000 square feet to 500 square feet I think is awesome. My living room is going outside and meeting new people,” he says. “If we reduce spending and living structures, I think that can lead to healthy lives and healthy communities.”
More than a tiny house movement
In 1999, the first Tumbleweed tiny house was mounted onto a trailer, setting in motion the revolutionary idea of having roots but being mobile at the same time.
Based on Colorado, Tumbleweed has been the go-to for many seeking to lessen their carbon footprint on the Earth while at the same time freeing up finances as a way to free up their lives. The company now offers workshops for those interested as well as design plans; the company also sells tiny homes and promotes DIY building.
For Icarus Savannah, 28, who identifies as queer, building a tiny house was not a luxury they had to work with. Savannah was out of work, dealing with a breakup, and needing a place to live.
A neighbor was selling an unfinished tiny house for $3,500, so Savannah saved up and purchased it. Savannah then contacted Dee Williams of Portland, Oregon, author of “The Big Tiny” and a tiny house pioneer, for guidance.
“I was at Evergreen State College [in Olympia, Washington], was a political and economics major, working low minimum wage jobs and high barriers to employment. And then I stumbled across tiny houses,” Savannah says.
Savannah moved the bones of the 78-square foot—the size of a parking spot—home to Arizona, on a plot of land their mother owns. And there Savannah learned, on their own, auto mechanics, carpentry, architecture, building, painting, and so much more.
It took two years to finish the tiny house and there was plenty of trial and error.
But when finished, Savannah says, “it was like being in charge of my own destiny, captain of my own ship. I don’t have to pay for the privilege of having a roof over my head.”
“Those who live in tiny houses value free- dom, simplicity, the economy of it, the utili- ty of it. It frees up a lot of areas in the rest of your life when you don’t have to pay rent or mortgage,” Savannah says.
But Savannah had to leave their tiny house in Arizona and move to Atlanta to find work. Now working at REI, they pay rent and live in a room bigger than the tiny house they had.
“I’m trying to save money to get my tiny house here, but now I’m caught in the rent cycle here,” Savannah says.
For Savannah, building and living in a tiny house was not about simplifying their life. It was about having a safe place to live when there was no work and no constant income.
“Housing is a fundamental human right,” Savannah says. “The tiny house movement is a movement for economic rights, human rights. It addresses the fundamental root reason and asks questions why can’t folks afford housing.”
While it seems many involved in the mainstream tiny house movement are white and middle class, there are fringe movements, Savannah says. “Queer and LGBT people, homeless, back-to-the-land people of color—I think those areas will be the sites of some cool work.”
More LGBT visibility needed
Em Elliott, who also identifies as queer, used to work for LGBT advocacy group Georgia Equality. Elliott recently moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and is now a carpentry apprentice with the goal of eventually building their own tiny house.
Constant economic strain from rent, utilities, student loans, and eventually housing instability led Elliott to realize “just how few rights tenants have in Georgia and I wanted to have more control over my housing destiny.
“I valued the communities I called home, but I wanted to have my own space I could control, plus save on rent. I couldn’t afford a house even if I wanted to and having all that unnecessary space plus a mortgage to maintain would just add to my stress,” Elliott says.
Elliott dreamed of having less stuff, less space, and less debt by living simply and sustainably in as small a space as possible. Building it on a trailer would be nice in order to be mobile. After doing some research, Elliott found an entire movement of people who were following the path toward tiny living.
“Whether they were doing it to reduce impact on the environment, to save money or change careers, or just to live a simpler, happier, more liberated life, I realized that I wasn’t alone when thinking about these larger issues. For some folks, tiny living is just the solution to hit on all of those,” Elliott says.
Elliott says they do wish the movement had more LGBT visibility and diversity overall within it.
“I haven’t seen much critical discussion of LGBTQ issues in tiny home groups and I’m hoping to bring voice to the fact that queer folks are often already living in creative ways, in smaller spaces and many of us have been doing so out of necessity for far longer than this trendy new lifestyle,” Elliott says. “Being able to pursue a tiny home is a privilege and I still wrestle with how to bring more of the benefits of tiny home living to our community.”