D.C.’s tiny houses are the architectural equivalent of that perfect couple you used to envy on Facebook: ultraphotogenic, cultured (they hosted a series of one-act plays last month), and so much quirkier and more interesting than anything going on in your bloated apartment. But now the status has flipped: The tiny houses are divorcing.
After two years of living on their Stronghold lot and inspiring a national housing conversation with their 140-to-200-square-foot homes, the three members of the Boneyard Studios tiny house showcase are breaking up. It’s not amicable. The novel, communal lifestyle presented in Pinky Swear Productions’ Tiny House Plays is absent as the end unfolds—a forced eviction gone public following months of internal squabbling.
On Aug. 19, two of the three trailer owners, Jay Austin and Lee Pera, announced on the community’s website that they would be leaving the lot and taking the Boneyard name with them. (For the purpose of the District’s zoning laws, the houses are technically trailers—they each have wheels, and cannot serve as permanent residences.) The third member, lot owner Brian Levy, would not be joining them in their to-be-determined new location in D.C.
Austin set the scene on his personal blog. “I left behind my tiny house community in May and came back in August to find it in ruins, the short-sighted work of a friend-turned-landlord, landlord-turned-slumlord,” he wrote in a Sept. 25 post. “I’ll soon find myself part of a tiny house community-in-exile, and I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with that: the uncertainty, the loss, the betrayal.”
None of Boneyard’s bike-riding, rainwater-catching, sustainable-living advocates wanted “to devolve this into a Jerry Springer show in a trailer park,” Levy told me. After all, Boneyard was supposed to be an exemplar for a utopian vision: In a city with sky-high rent and gentrification-ravaged neighborhoods, here was genuinely affordable housing (Austin built his for just more than $40,000), conceived in an ultra-sustainable manner, capable of bringing a community together.
Instead, the District’s only tiny house community is falling apart over construction, vegetables, name-calling, and poop.
Boneyard Studios formed in 2011 with a classic rom-com meet-cute. Levy, a tiny house hobbyist and vice president of energy efficiency group Pear Energy, met Pera, a geographer for the Environmental Protection Agency with an interest in microliving, on a community bike ride. After discovering their common interest in little homes, the pair decided to form a tiny house showcase to demonstrate how low-cost, sustainable living could be achieved with a Swiss Army knife–level of design efficiency.
Levy bought the 0.12-acre Stronghold alleyway parking lot in April 2012 for $29,000 under his name, according to property records. (In November, he transferred the property to his self-registered Minim Homes LLC.) Austin, who works at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, joined Boneyard shortly after the purchase. (A fourth house briefly sat on the lot in 2013, but the owner was rarely around and eventually moved the trailer.)
The Boneyard members never bothered with a lease or any other written agreement. But Levy shouldered nearly all of the financial burden: In addition to buying the property, he also paid to bust up the concrete and beautify the area for a garden, and he owns the studio shed that serves as Boneyard’s workspace. Levy estimates he has spent $85,000 on the lot. Pera and Austin have paid him monthly rent to partially offset the cost of the lot, utilities, and other expenses, but they saw themselves functioning as a community rather than renters.
This dynamic—single-owner versus community-driven—became a source of contention from Boneyard’s earliest days. Pera initially wanted to form a joint LLC to purchase the property and operate under a co-op model, and claims Levy surprised her by buying the land himself after they discussed her idea. (Levy says he doesn’t recall those conversations, but added, “I never would have agreed to a situation where there’s two, three, four people deciding what kind of fence posts to put up.”) Pera then formed a separate LLC for the Boneyard name. “I want Boneyard Studios to be something larger than a name associated with a piece of property,” she said.
Austin, meanwhile, wanted to build a cheap residence that could accommodate his minimalist, wanderlust lifestyle, which included cross-country scooter trips and backpacking treks through Europe; Levy wanted to use Boneyard not as a potential living space, but as a showcase for tiny houses and a community outreach tool. (The agreement Levy reached with the city to use the alley prohibits him from conducting business on the property, so he says he does not pitch the design to Boneyard’s visitors. Pera and Austin, though, point to a flyer that describes the house in detail and directs visitors to the Minim website) Pera and Austin were more concerned with how their quirky abodes appeared to their Stronghold neighbors. “We are, at the end of the day, three white folks moving into a very historically black neighborhood and doing something that’s very attention-grabbing,” Austin said. Austin and Pera wanted to “see the land as more than just a place to park our houses.”
Pera threw free concerts and movie nights, while Austin organized open houses. They viewed these contributions as equal to Levy’s financial investments in the property and grew irritated if he purchased things they didn’t agree to: When he bought the studio shed to replace a shipping container, for example, they said they would have preferred to build a “community space” by hand.
In the past two years, Boneyard’s public stature has grown. The tiny houses have drawn plenty of media attention, as well as hundreds to their regular open houses. They’ve also attracted the notice of Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who lives 20 feet from the Boneyard property. McDuffie has raised concerns about the Boneyard experiment, citing constituent complaints about the location and the loss of the alley’s free parking. McDuffie was unavailable to comment for this story.
But the primary dispute at Boneyard remains the one between Levy and Pera. By 2014, Levy had grown frustrated by the fact that Pera’s 145-square-foot house remained under construction, citing the noise as an annoyance to neighbors (including him) and her mid-project design changes as taxing for her builders and architects. “The project has caused her and others considerable suffering, and personally my well of compassion just ran dry after years of construction, the noise, the stressed energy,” he said.
Pera, who has worked with five credited designers and builders to Austin’s two, says it has been difficult for her to complete her house due to her full-time work schedule, to her various construction setbacks, and, at least partially, to Levy, whom she says has barred her access to the studio shed and left her things out in the rain.
“I beat myself up a lot,” Pera says. “It’s been hard to be the only female, no building experience, and have my house take as long as it did.”
Other disagreements arose. Boneyard’s 10-plot garden, for example, was conceived as a community garden until neighbors showed no interest in participating. So Levy grew crops himself and allocated plots to the others, giving away surplus to neighbors. The setup bothered Austin, who felt like “the white landed gentry giving out produce.”
Then there’s the poop. The houses aren’t connected to sewage treatment, so the members have devised their own waste setups. First they installed incinerator toilets, which burn waste instead of flushing it, but the odors bothered Pera and Austin. Pera installed a Swedish-built Separett waterless toilet and dug a trench below her house for the urine; Austin is having a Separett installed in his unit, as well. They also rented a Porta-Potty.
Austin and Pera allege Levy has deposited his liquid waste in storm drains and other waste in Porta-Potties on nearby construction sites; he denies both claims and counters that Austin has been going in a bucket for the majority of his time on the lot. Levy is not a fan of the Separett in general, because it requires manual handling of solid waste, and he worries about the impact on public perception of the sanitation of tiny house communities—the same concern Pera says she’s expressed for the past two years while advocating for a Porta-Potty instead of the incinerator toilets.
This June, a proposal restricting “Camp-ing in Alleys” made its way into a planned overhaul of the District’s zoning code; it appears directed primarily at residences like Boneyard’s. The Office of Planning submitted the changes to the Zoning Commission, citing “noise, traffic, parking, lighting, sanitation, or otherwise objectionable conditions.”
Levy wrote an open letter in July to the commission and planning office requesting they reconsider their stance. “We have been working tirelessly, with our own savings, for over two years to make Boneyard Studios a beautiful showcase of micro housing,” Levy wrote on Boneyard’s website. He signed the letter, “Brian Levy and the Boneyard Studios Community.”
That same month, Levy emailed Pera requesting that she vacate the lot by the end of September. He continued to project an outward image of a united front, though, appearing on WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show in August as Boneyard’s “co-founder and developer,” even though Pera owns the LLC to the Boneyard name.
The timeframe he gave Pera would have required her to move her house before Tiny House Plays ended its run. But Pera stayed, and the shows went on. Now Pera and Austin, who has chosen to leave with her, are seeking legal counsel. For the moment they’re not budging from the alley, having rejected multiple financial settlement offers from Levy. According to them, Levy requested they sign a confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement, which they refused to do. (Levy has since dropped the confidentiality agreement.) Levy has also threatened to have parking enforcement ticket their trailers for illegal parking, which could lead to towing and ultimately impounding.
“I do have other uses for the property, so ticketing is an option,” Levy said. “But once a generous settlement has been rejected, what options are left?”
The trio knows Boneyard is far from the public portrayal of an idyllic, status-quo-challenging microliving arrangement, but they insist that tiny houses are not to blame. “What we don’t want is to give people the idea that the problem is tiny house communities, that [they] create problems and they’re not good for cities,” Austin said. “They require planning.”
But many of the problems Boneyard squabbled over—sanitation issues, small-scale construction hurdles, the question of how to best engage the neighborhood—would be present in any urban tiny house community. Pera and Austin want to try again and are scouting new locations, but Levy is done. He says he will “absolutely not” invite other tiny house owners on his lot. Instead, he’s begun conversations with the Academy of Construction and Design at the Cardozo Education Campus for students in the school’s carpentry and electrical programs to build a tiny house on his property.
Training the next generation of builders on tiny homes would give microliving advocates a new angle to trumpet. But as Boneyard’s breakup demonstrates, efficient design doesn’t inherently translate into better living.
Corrections: This article originally contained three errors. The relationship between Boneyard and Minim Homes was mischaracterized; Levy says he does not directly use Boneyard to market his Minim Homes designs. This story also incorrectly stated that Levy’s settlement offer to Pera and Austin included a confidentiality agreement. In fact, Levy dropped the confidentiality agreement recently. And due to a reporting error, the story originally reported that Levy bought the property in April 2012 under Minim Homes LLC. In fact, he bought it under his name, then transferred it to Minim Homes LLC in November of 2012.”
File photo by Darrow Montgomery