Editor’s Note: Will Johnston, executive director of the MicroLife Institute in Atlanta, writes about downsizing as you age. His new column, “Rightsizing,” will appear every other month in Atlanta Senior Life. This is his first column which appears in the October, 2021 issue.

Will Johnston

A “pocket neighborhood” of eight houses, each smaller than 500 square feet, has just been completed in Clarkston.

You read that right –– 500 square feet. That is the total living space of seven of the eight homes, with the last home sitting at only 250 square feet, a truly tiny home.  All eight of these “micro-cottage” homes are clustered around a common area on just .57 acres. They are the MicroLife Institute’s first-of-its-kind pilot project, which we call “The Cottages on Vaughan.”

My grandparents lived in their house for 55 years. When they were ready to downsize to a smaller home, there were no options in their established neighborhood or community. Their choices were high-rise assisted living or neighborhoods that they didn’t want to live in. They ended up moving an hour-and-a-half away.

I tell that story a lot because it was very hard to watch my grandparents move from everything they knew to a place that “helped them age.” My grandparents and their experience are part of what seeded the idea that led eventually to our Cottages on Vaughan.

MicroLife believes that if there were a better housing policy in place, residents would have more choices in their neighborhoods and be able to downsize and remain in their communities.

The Cottages on Vaughan in Clarkston, Ga.

Why did the Microlife Institute build this community? To show that not only is this project financially feasible to build, but there’s also a demand for it.

There’s no doubt that one of the major drivers of current housing crisis is scarcity: there is a lack of diverse housing in every major market across the country. The dream of homeownership is slipping away for many millennials and young people, and at the same time it’s becoming harder and harder for long-time residents to image a future where they remain in their community.

The good news is this is a solvable challenge. We can allow seniors to downsize and age in place with dignity. We can create abundant, accessible housing options, and MicroLife built the Cottages on Vaughan to prove it. Years were spent conducting research, passing policies to allow for projects like this, and then actually building. By the time the plans were announced to build the first pocket-neighborhood in Georgia, the interest list had ballooned to more than 1,500 people.

The Cottages on Vaughan proved it’s not about the size of the home but the nature of the design. Pocket neighborhoods, or cottage courts, are built to allow a community to thrive.

That was the attraction for all eight homeowners. They wanted a community. It also laid the groundwork of research and housing policy necessary to create community — driven policies — something MicroLife  believes is critical to allow intentionally designed homes that use space efficiently.

MicroLife has been around for a while, but following the launch of our Cottages on Vaughan, more people than ever are talking about its work and asking us for help to create more right-sized housing in their neighborhood. The first step to creating more projects like Cottages on Vaughan is to get more people across the country to talk about housing and embrace the MicroLife Institute philosophy of “less space, more life.”

Our family size and household sizes have changed dramatically since the nuclear-family era, and it’s time for our zoning and land-use rules to change too. At the end of the day that’s what the MicroLife Institute is working towards –– creating abundant, accessible housing options. Whether that means cottage courts, accessory dwelling units, duplexes or triplexes, everybody should have access to right-sized homes that work for their incomes and lifestyles.

So how do we do help communities learn about adding housing variety? First, we get more people to talk about the idea, and better yet, to actually come and experience it for themselves. That’s why after the launch of Cottages on Vaughan, MicroLife began hosting monthly tours to allow people to see what’s possible with policies that allow community-driven developments.

Another way we can help cities embrace new housing ideas is through festivals like MicroLife Institute’s. Tiny House Festival coming this Oct. 16 and 17 in Avondale Estates. People can see firsthand how life can look living in a smaller footprint. We’re not saying that everyone needs to live in a tiny house, but we are saying it is fun and interesting to see how others can and do live this lifestyle. You might even come away with some ideas on space utilization and the ability to be a little bit more flexible in your home.

The MicroLife Institute is thrilled to be able to show off its pilot project. Stay tuned as in future columns we discuss minimalism, downsizing and utilization of space in housing in upcoming issues of Atlanta Senior Life.

We look forward to your thoughts and ideas about these different topics. If you have any suggested topics that you’d like us to speak to please write to us at thoughts@microlifeinstitute.org.

Will Johnston

Will Johnston is the Executive Director of the MicroLife Institute and a contributor to Atlanta Senior Life. Learn more at microlifeinstitute.org