Western North Carolina leaders have been thinking big when it comes to the region’s affordable housing crisis, with Buncombe County alone aiming to create or preserve up to 3,150 affordable units by 2030. But when it comes to actually building those spaces, some in the area are also thinking small.
On Sept. 7, local nonprofit BeLoved Asheville raised the first wall at a planned tiny house village in East Asheville. And in downtown Asheville, local development firm Mori Blue Holdings received a roughly $593,000 grant from city government June 14 to build an 80-unit microhousing complex on Hilliard Avenue. The same developer is currently seeking approval for a 231-unit development on Aston Street that uses a similar microhousing model.
The 12 homes planned for the BeLoved development will each be no larger than 600 square feet, while the Mori Blue apartments won’t exceed 250 square feet. By contrast, according to the National Association of Home Builders, the median size of a new single-family home in the U.S. was 2,338 square feet as of late 2021.
While tiny living spaces aren’t new to WNC — a 2014 post on the popular blog Tiny House Giant Journey called Asheville the “East Coast capital for tiny homes,” and Simple Life in Flat Rock opened the region’s first dedicated tiny home community in 2017 — developers are revisiting the concept as housing demand intensifies and construction costs increase.
Taking a village
Since its inception, BeLoved’s tiny house village has been driven by a group of Asheville residents with lived experience of the housing crisis. “Simply put, we are working on a project that is what people who are impacted by housing insecurity and/or homelessness say they want,” says Amy Cantrell, the nonprofit’s co-director.
Starting in 2015, a group of such folks met weekly with BeLoved staff to imagine what kind of housing they wanted. During one 2016 meeting, Cantrell recalls, Asheville police knocked on the door and asked those present to identify a body: It was their friend Janet Jones, who had frozen to death due to housing insecurity. The tragic shock moved the group into action.
“I remember someone in the room saying, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ Not, ‘What is the government going to do?’ What are we going to do?” recounts Cantrell. At that point, the group started to create a concrete plan for the tiny house village.
The project’s 12 homes will provide “deeply affordable housing,” defined by BeLoved as fitting the budget of those making 30%-40% of the area median income. That works out to earnings of no more than $22,500 per year for a single person or $25,700 for a couple — half the 80% AMI threshold that many city of Asheville affordable housing programs aim to meet. Residents won’t own their homes, but BeLoved plans to help them build equity through a community trust.
And the development offers what impacted people have said they want: a real home, with a full bathroom, space to garden and be outdoors, neighbors to connect with, even art on the walls. The dwellings won’t technically meet the definition of a tiny home outlined by the 2018 International Residential Building Code (under 400 square feet), but their small sizes nonetheless keep costs down. Each is estimated to cost about $95,000, including site work and 30 years of maintenance; the average building cost of a new single-family home in Buncombe County is nearly $248,000, according to industry website Construction Coverage.
Natalie Bogwalker, who teaches tiny home construction through Barnardsville-based permaculture school Wild Abundance and has lived in various tiny houses she’s built over the past 20 years, says BeLoved’s plans are a great size for the nonprofit’s goals. “I think around 400 square feet is great for a single person, and between 500 and 800 is ideal for a family,” she explains.
In the heart of it
Mori Blue’s Hilliard Avenue project targets a different demographic: downtown workers, particularly those in service industry jobs. The fully furnished microapartments will rent at around $1,000 per month with internet and utilities included, a level considered affordable for those making 80% AMI.
Developer David Moritz says he was inspired to build the project by his friend and business partner, Scott Shapiro of Eagle Rock Ventures. Shapiro had successfully built microapartments in Seattle and Tennessee, and the pair thought a similar approach could work in Asheville.
Moritz says the model combines privacy with an element of communal living. Each unit has a bathroom and minikitchen, but each floor also features a full kitchen and lounge where residents can spread out and interact.
“It’s a more sustainable form of living,” says Moritz. “You’re downtown; you don’t have to drive to work. … Also, it tends to be more social. People tend to get to know each other a little bit better.”
The microapartment approach is significantly different from the traditional tiny home model, in which individual structures are built on mobile trailer bases. (BeLoved’s homes are being built on permanent foundations.) But Moritz believes it allows greater density, and thus, lower costs, in high-demand areas like downtown.
Dedicated tiny-living developments are still a rarity in Buncombe County. While stationary tiny homes are allowed by right — as long as they conform to the state residential building code, which among other mandates requires indoor plumbing, laundry hookups and an approved heat source — mobile tiny homes are regulated similarly to recreational vehicles, and residents aren’t legally allowed to live in them for more than 180 days per year. In 2019, Asheville City Council cited that restriction as it denied a request to expand where tiny homes on wheels would be allowed in the city.
At the state level, regulators are allowing some flexibility for tiny-home builders. A September 2021 hearing by the N.C. Building Code Council created a separate appendix in the code for tiny homes, with special rules including lower minimum ceiling heights and alternatives to masonry foundations.
Bogwalker with Wild Abundance says that more could be done to encourage tiny-home construction. For example, she’d like to see code changes that allow for alternative insulation materials.
“These spaces are so small that they don’t require much energy to heat and cool anyway,” she points out. “It would be great to allow people to utilize natural building techniques that are sustainable and perfect for small spaces.”
Whether they’re hand-built forever homes or microapartments for folks walking to work downtown, tiny living spaces may be a powerful tool for addressing not only housing, but also other community issues. “We’re interested in co-solving crises. We’re looking at intersections of housing, racism, the climate crisis, isolation and loneliness,” Cantrell says. “These are community crises that are not actually separate from one another.”