Dan King
Dan King · February 8, 2022

HIGHLAND LAKE, Ala.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) sent a letter to the town of Highland Lake, Alabama, calling on officials to end the town’s unconstitutional ban on small homes. The letter argues that the law violates both the U.S. and Alabama Constitutions. 

Highland Lake requires all homes to be at least 1,800 square feet, which is much stricter than other towns and might be the highest minimum requirement in the entire country. Small and tiny homes provide flexibility for residents, increase the overall supply of housing and offer a more affordable means to home ownership than larger homes. 

“Requiring people to build big homes is not just bad policy, it is also unconstitutional,” said IJ Senior Attorney Erica Smith Ewing, the author of the letter. “Both the Alabama and U.S Constitutions require laws to be connected to a legitimate government purpose, like protecting the general welfare or public safety. But there is nothing unsafe about living in a modestly sized home.”  

The town is active in its enforcement of this ordinance, and multiple residents have been harmed by it. 

Upon retirement, resident Karen Hawkins Murphy decided it was time to downsize, because she was struggling to maintain her larger home. She wanted to build a smaller home on her vacant land where she could more easily live out her golden years. The city would not let her. 

“At first, I accepted the town’s answer when they told me I couldn’t build a smaller home. However, when I saw the abhorrent way the town treated other residents who wanted to build smaller homes, I couldn’t let it go. Thus, I created the petition to change the ordinance.” Karen said. “This issue isn’t just about me. It’s about so many more of my neighbors who fear they could end up in a similar situation to me or the Cooleys.” 

After the Cooley family’s home burned down last year, they wanted to rebuild. But their old home was around 1,250 square feet, so the town told them no. The Cooleys tried to find a middle ground and asked for a variance to build a 1,550 square foot home. The town denied their request on September 27. Because of the town’s minimum size requirement, they were forced to live in a hotel for months before ultimately deciding to move out of the town altogether. 

“The town’s law is hurting residents who just want to live in a home that best meets their needs and budget,” added Smith Ewing. “People choose to build smaller homes for a variety of reasons, whether it’s downsizing following retirement, rebuilding from a devastating fire or looking for a more affordable alternative to bigger homes. The town should not stand in their way.”  

Last September, Karen put together a petition to have the town change its law; about half of Highland Lake’s residents signed it. She then presented the petition to the town council. On February 2, Karen asked the town council about the status of the petition and its request for a change to the law. Councilman Sid Nelson stated, “We found there just isn’t an appetite at this time to change it.” 

Making matters worse, the town has likely been violating the Alabama Open Meetings Act and the Alabama Open Records Law. On three separate occasions, Karen asked for minutes from town meetings, including minutes discussing the 1,800 foot requirement and minutes from when the Cooleys were denied their variance. The town never responded. Additionally, when IJ asked for public records, the town never even acknowledged receipt of the request. These records are legally required to be publicly available. 

IJ has fought against similar bans on building small homes, including a lawsuit against the town of Calhoun, Georgia. Calhoun’s law, which sets the minimum size of homes at 1,150 square feet, is preventing a non-profit that builds affordable housing from building in that town. IJ is currently challenging other harmful zoning laws, such as the one being used to kick people out of their homes in Sierra Vista, Arizona and the one that is threatening to put a small mechanic in Pasadena, Texas, out of business by requiring him to install 23 parking spaces he doesn’t need and can’t afford.