The shake up of Boneyard Studios, a tiny house community

Boneyard Studios
© Boneyard Studios

There are a few notable barriers to the tiny house becoming a mainstream movement, and finding land to park one's home is one of them. Living communally on shared land with other tiny housers is a possible solution, and one example we've seen is Boneyard Studios, a "micro-village" of tiny homes built in Washington DC.

But since covering Boneyard resident Jay Austin's Matchbox house last year, we heard that there was trouble brewing in the community over governance and ownership. It seems now that the original Boneyard Studio community has now disintegrated, due to internal tensions between co-founders Jay Austin, Lee Pera and Brian Levy, owner of the Minim house, who is the one who eventually purchased the lot. Via Curbed:

In [a letter dated March 20, 2015], Austin and Pera listed various issues they encountered with Levy, including his canceling plans for a communal water system, seizing the community garden, and "intentionally" trapping tenants inside the community by padlocking the gates. In their letter, Austin and Pera's account of Levy's actions soon resembled a kind of horror story with Levy entering Pera's tiny home in the middle of the night without permission and throwing two-by-fours into an alley to stop kids from riding scooters near the property.

Boneyard Studios© Boneyard Studios

There's always two sides to every story, and Levy alleges in the Micro Showcase FAQ that things broke down due to unpaid rent, a lack of participation and issues over ownership and differences in philosophies and which direction the project should take (non-profit or for-profit, etc.):

Lee and Jay seemed to believe they were entitled to ownership of the property after making minimal payments ($150/month) to partly cover utilities, insurance payments, and a fraction (20%, not 2/3) of the interest [I] was paying on $80K of personal loans to fully underwrite the project.

In his FAQ, Levy claims that there were problems with agreeing on how to properly handle human waste, a lack of professionalism to advance the tiny house cause by showcasing "messy job sites, weedy gardens, and confirming neighbors' fears about being next to a 'trailer park'."

(UPDATE: For their part, Pera and Austin are actively refuting Levy's claims, saying that there was "never an issue with waste, gardens were properly maintained," and that neighbors "loved the project." They say they have documentation that rent was fully paid via escrow to prevent further damage to their property, that they were denied access to much of the amenities that they put "sweat equity" into, and were misled about several of Brian's purchases that were verbally agreed upon as community additions, only to be locked up as private property a few months later. For more details, read Austin's response, and scroll down the Curbed post.)

It's sad to see this. Living with others can be a complicated situation, especially when it concerns financial matters. Compromise depends on having a balanced perspective, and it can get difficult if opinions differ on how much one's contributing stake is worth. Pera and Austin write that the last thing they wanted was to end things on a negative note:

We [were] afraid of letting the drama overshadow the positivity, afraid of giving people the impression these communities can’t work. [..] In the coming weeks we’ll be sharing more about these lessons, and we hope it’ll be the start of a long, fruitful discussion on how tiny house enthusiasts can build safe, sustainable communities for themselves and others.

Could things have been peacefully resolved without getting lawyers involved and boundaries being broken? It's hard to say, but Austin and Pera are not deterred: they are rebuilding Boneyard in another location and are now hosting events. It is an unfortunate turn, but often adversity can make people and communities stronger. Besides this much-publicized falling-out, there are still many more tiny communities (official or otherwise) cropping up under the radar, showing that alternative communities can and do work. Good things take a lot of effort, and the ordeal of this once-vibrant community serves as a cautionary tale for better communication, to get even friendly agreements in writing and for working hard to achieve consensus for the greater common good. Read the full story over at Curbed, Boneyard Studios and Micro Showcase.

Tags: Communities | Less Is More | Living With Less | Small Spaces

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