In The News | HabiJax rental development bringing tiny house community look to Jacksonville

Authored by: Steve Patterson | Editor Florida Times-Union

It probably won’t end up in any textbooks, but HabiJax’s new Westside building project is giving Jacksonville its first idea of what a tiny house subdivision could look like.

The 50-home development on just 5.7 acres near Lane Avenue is the city’s first example of houses mostly measuring less than 500 square feet being built as a community, not oddball novelties.

‘’We’re going to learn a lot from this one,” said Monte Walker, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Jacksonville, the housing nonprofit commonly called HabiJax.

The development at Wiley Road and Navaho Avenue was launched last year with a $5.5 million grant from philanthropist Delores Barr Weaver through the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida.

Twenty-nine homes are under construction so far and the rest could be completed by late summer, Walker said.

They’re being built as rental properties, which is unusual for HabiJax but will let the nonprofit offer housing to people who don’t want long-term commitments but need a home they can afford.

Social service organizations will be referring potential tenants to the development, which will be managed by Jacksonville-based Ability Housing, a nonprofit that operates apartment complexes targeted to people with disabilities or a risk of homelessness.

Rents will be based on a tenant’s income, Walker said.

During a City Council zoning hearing last year, council members were told the range was expected to be $400 to $600 per month.

The homes represent something new for Jacksonville, where building and housing codes were written for years for structures with more square footage and higher ceilings. The red tape involved in trying to build a tiny house on-site has been one reason local enthusiasts have previously constructed them on trailers to tow like campers. 

The “Tiny Houses on Navaho” development is being built around four courtyards, with 23 parking spaces on the sides of Navaho and an overflow area for four others. That's less than one parking space per house, but supporters are expecting many tenants to use bus routes on Lane Avenue or bike and walk to get around.  

There are four home models, each designed as a one-bedroom house for two people. HabiJax officials have sad the largest model is in the mid-500 square feet range, although building permits issued so far only reflect homes measuring 469 or 496 square feet.

The development was approved under the city’s catch-all “planned unit development” zoning, which allows sizes and distances between buildings that can be a lot smaller than standard zonings but can require negotiation between developers and local officials to get needed council approval. 

Council member Brenda Priestly Jackson, who represents the area, said she would have been more reluctant if her college-age daughter hadn’t been telling her enthusiastically about the tiny houses she saw during semesters in Vermont.

“I was open to the tiny-house concept,” Jackson said, although some neighborhood activists had concerns about the number of people and cars the project would bring.

The Southwest Citizens Planning Advisory Committee, a city-created board meant to reflect residents’ thinking, warned before the rezoning that the development “will create multiple undeniable problems for the citizens of the area, lead to a continued down-spiraling of property values and the opening of ‘Pandora’s Box.’”

“Tiny,” by the way, can be a matter of perspective. Tiny-house purists tend to say a home should be 400 square feet or less to deserve the label, and some trailer-built homes are less than 200 square feet. In tiny-house vernacular, what’s being built by HabiJax would be a “small house,” anything less than 1,000 square feet. The median size nationally for a newly built house in 2019 was 2,301 square feet, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

Being small doesn’t mean the homes can’t be nice.

HabiJax plans to rent them furnished, and Walker said his organization had a designer pick items — “basically IKEA furniture” — that would be pleasing but still fit well inside a compact space.

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