What happened to the Boneyard Studios Popup?
Unfortunately the Boneyard Studios popup ended on less than ideal terms, which are subject to significant and ongoing deliberate public misrepresentation by Lee Pera and Jay Austin, hence the sad necessity of this FAQ.
The micro house trend is important, and in any movement there will be natural differences of opinion as to how to advance it. Fundamentally, beyond the personalities and ‘he-said-she-said’ griping and misrepresentation were simple, fundamental differences in strategy as to how to spread this movement to mainstream U.S. culture. I (Brian) firmly believe the movement will not be advanced by:
- showcasing designs difficult for the handicapped, elderly, or claustrophobic to use.
- showcasing aesthetically unrefined designs.
- showcasing the difficulty of building a micro house through multi-year, endless construction, poor planning & countless building problems.
- showcasing messy job sites, weedy gardens, and confirming neighbors fears about being next to a ’trailer park’.
- building improper sanitation that garners the negative attention of regulators and press.
- ignoring local zoning battles that could potentially make more micro housing possible.
- constructing one-off designs, rather than having beautiful, highly functional models that are easily constructed or purchased by all.
- blaming others in an attempt to generate public sympathy, rather than taking personal responsibility for ones actions.
These differences between Jay&Lee and Brian led to the end of Boneyard Studios experiment in the fall of 2014.
Beyond advancing the micro house movement, there were substantially different levels of prior experience in community organizing and living. My (Brian) expectations of community were formed in many ways: as an active member of the DC Meridian Hill Neighborhood Association (member 10 years, President 2 years, Treasurer 1 year), a DC block club leader (6 years), Resident (4 years) Board Member (3 years) and President (1 year) of the Omega Co-op (one of the oldest housing coops in Minneapolis), through founding and living in several group houses, through participation in community-run gardens (member 14 years, lead coordinator 4 years), as a teen mentor (5+ years) and participant in a DC foster youth program, and as a DC property owner (12 years). In these experiences, healthy community happens when there are (at least) 3 things: presence (gotta be there, every week, or at least every month), shared expectations, and personal responsibility/respect. In retrospect, I made mistakes: At the start of the project I was a bit burnt out on group organizing, and consciously decided to just be optimistically trusting that minimal standards of conduct would prevail. As a result we failed to have clear, cooperatively derived set of expectations. Further description of the issues follow:
- Endless construction. After 2 years and 4 months of ongoing construction, 5 different builders, and emotional turmoil that affected everyone on the lot, Lee’s 140 ft2 tiny house remained substantially incomplete (and remains so today), with ongoing construction piles/noise/poor aesthetics compromising the showcase and the sanity of neighbors (one of whom, 20 feet away, is the Ward 5 City Councilmember, and whose family personally thanked Brian after it’s removal). Photo below. As the years dragged on, there was mounting tension between Lee, who primarily came to use the lot as a long term construction and material storage site and was infrequently on site, and Brian, who was there daily using the site quietly as an office, garden, and entertainment.
- Sanitation. Despite repeated requests, for years Lee and Jay’s houses never had proper sanitation improvements, and both refused to purchase and operate sanitary incinerator toilets. There were literally buckets of urine kept or drained behind Jay’s house, fecal matter disposed of in trash bags, etc. Perhaps a 23 year old could not have been expected to know better. Nevertheless, it came to represent a liability to the project, and the the microhouse movement more widely. The DC Zoning Commission got wind of this situation (perhaps literally), and it became the primary and only concern of the Commission regarding the lot, as communicated very clearly at several zoning meetings in 2014 that Brian attended (Lee and Jay never attended any zoning mtgs or regular neighborhood mtgs from the summer of 2012 until the present). The Commission then proposed (and will pass in 2015) a new zoning regulation (‘Camping in Alleys‘) that specifically targets the project, prohibiting any residential use of trailers on the lot, on every alley lot in DC.
- Zoning. While all participants in the project wished to live full time in the houses, they could never officially do so due to other city zoning & codes- a battle that became increasingly clear the project would never win but that some remained (and remain) in denial about. In the late fall 2014 DCRA issued a letter to the property owner (Brian) demanding that the houses not be lived in, and threatening a $2000 fine. DCRA letter is on file.
- Mismatch of effort. The owner of the lot contributed solely and willingly to the acquisition and development of the property (with $80K+ of his own funds and thousands of hours of labor, which did not include the $ or labor for his own house), fortunately with no expectation of gratitude. This included: 11 trips to DCRA to deal with permits, years of engagement on the city zoning rewrite, payment and installation for fencing, storage unit, new community space, electricity, internet, acquiring and operating a hot tub, garden furniture, wood oven, construction of 10 garden beds, planting 15 fruit trees, flowers, as well as regular maintenance of the lot (despite requests, perhaps 3x was the lawn mowed by anyone else in 3 years), engaging DDOT to upgrade alley lighting to LED, in addition to 25+ blog posts and high quality content that drove 75% of the BYS daily site traffic. During this time Lee and Jay mostly just worked on their houses, when they were in town (Jay left the community for the entire summer for 2 years). They maintained a Facebook page, organized some music events for friends, did a bit of press and tours (as everyone did), and ran for-profit tiny house workshops. It was suggested that Lee and Jay might contribute in some small way to other lot improvements that were agreed upon by consensus- a community micro-library, a bike rack, etc. None of these things ever came to be.
Some more simple facts:
- Land purchase. The lot was originally purchased by Brian in March 2012 to start Boneyard Studios, a tiny house popup that hosted five different tiny houses over several years, with the goal of showcasing what a tiny house community might look like, and advancing the micro house movement. Lee and Jay were co-founders of the project, although Jay did not join until months after the property was acquired. At the time of purchase Lee seemed uninterested and unable purchase the property to start the project- Lee in fact left for much of the summer immediately after the BYS project began, and there were multiple conversations about her potentially leaving DC within a year. Thus there was never any serious discussion of cooperative ownership of the property. In 2013 the deed of the property was transferred to an LLC so that a liability insurance policy could be acquired to cover, among other things, Lee and Jay’s many volunteers on the property (Brian, the property owner, could be held personally liable for any accidents on-site without the insurance, and after many hours of research it was clear an empty lot that was not an LLC could not get a liability policy). This was all transparently communicated.
- Lee’s Departure. Due to issues above, originally only Lee Pera was asked to leave the lot by September, in a kindly worded letter, in July 2014. She eventually left Nov 14 after months of delays and missed deadlines she herself set.
- Jay’s Departure. Upset at Brian’s decision to request Lee’s departure without his consultation, Jay Austin decided in July that he too would leave. Despite the ‘uncomfortable conditions’ that he then created (see below), he stayed on for over 6 months, squatting, comfortable enough with illegal rent-free living on property he did not own nor have any lease on. Before the police were called to ticket Jay’s trailer and motorcycle, which was done with a seriously heavy heart, Jay had previously committed, twice, in writing, to move out by the late November. He broke his promise to do this, had for months stopped paying for any utilities/etc (to date over $850 in bills remain unpaid), was using the press to defame Brian as he lived on his land, had repeatedly refused a generous settlement agreement, and then also failed, upon repeated demand, to provide some reasonably convincing evidence of substantive effort to find another parking space (he sent a craigslist ad he had posted the week he had committed to leaving- this after 4 months of stating he was going to leave). He was ticketed by the MPD 5th District ($500 for illegal parking scooter+trailer on private property), as advised by local DC counsel. Based on Jay’s promised departure date, the owner had committed the property to other uses (a local high school tiny house build) and was consequently forced to delay their program. Jay at last departed Jan 25, 2015, only because he left the country and knew his empty trailer could be again legally ticketed, then towed off the lot.
- Settlement. In August 2014, Lee and Jay decided to make (completely unfounded) demands for money to leave the property, coupled with several threats. The immediate employment of a lawyer was strongly advised. Rather than go to court, involve law enforcement, or pursue an eviction (which would have been costly and would have permanently compromised Jay and Lee’s ability to ever rent a property), a generous settlement offer to move the trailers within 2 months was made ($1000 to more than cover moving costs + 5 months of the payments they were contributing for parking on the lot ($150/mo) + the BYS.com website). This offer was repeatedly refused for unknown reasons (3x the money, more time, and dropping an anti-defamation clause were the demands). No settlement was reached.
- Decision-making. Decisions to request that a 4th trailer to leave (Elaine’s), to build the Studio Shed at Brian’s full expense, and many others were jointly and communally made at monthly meetings. Representation otherwise is completely false. Regarding the garden, Brian built and paid for it and personally flyered the neighborhood to find neighbors who might be interested in a plot. There were no takers, period. Having a community garden was in any case not possible without a water source. Neither Lee nor Jay built (nor ever offered to build) water collection systems that could support more then themselves (Lee never had an operable system at all). Lee took 4 of the 10 garden beds, for two consecutive years, and all 4 became untended weed plots by mid-summer.
- Profit and ownership. 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 Brian was paying on $80K of personal loans to fully underwrite the project. This was deeply misguided, though perhaps not unamusing. They also seemed to want to believe Brian was driven to profit by the the project. But the record should be clear: $0 in commissions have been made off of any activity on the lot, of the 56 house plans sold to date, exactly 2 buyers came to visit the lot (sales are all online), and the personal debt in undertaking this experiment is still being paid off. Lee made far more hosting commercial for-fee tiny house workshops (technically in violation of zoning rules for the lot) that featured visits and training on the property.
- ETC. “we dug trenches and shoveled soil and put in hours of labor improving the lot“: In 3 years, Jay once spent an hour digging a trench to plant some bamboo for privacy around (Brian’s) hot tub that he used daily. He also cobbled together a stand to stack firewood that collapsed the day after. This was the extent of Lee and Jay’s contributions to lot projects. “damaged builders’ equipment and intentionally ruined Lee’s architects’ tools“: I (Brian) accidentally left a single worktable of Lees outside one evening in 2014. It rained and the top was slightly warped. She was fully compensated. “entered her house without her permission in the middle of the night.” Malarky. Lee never lived in or spent a single night in her house as far as we are aware. We all had keys to each others houses, and regularly put back tools & materials inside for safe keeping. “throw two-by-fours into the alley to stop a few kids from riding scooters” The ‘kids’ were teens riding motorized ‘pocket rocket’ style motorcycles at 50mph+ down a 10′ narrow alley where pedestrians and a pre-school regularly walk with their kids. Brian early engaged with DDOT to install speed bumps, but to date no action. “padlocked both gates…” It was very clearly indicated that no further concerts or BYS activities were to be held after Oct 2014. Jay/Lee nevertheless planned one for Nov. Gates to the lot were locked and power switched off, for 2 hours, to prevent illegal trespassing and activity.
- ETC. But otherwise, did they go gracefully? Only if you consider grace to be: secret recording of private conversations, interception and deletion of Brian’s personal email, spurious demands for financial compensation and various threats to go to press & DCRA & defame Brian (which they have made good on, in articles in City Paper, Curbed DC, and on their Facebook and website), inflammatory statements on neighborhood nextdoor.com listserve (the nextdoor.com management removed Jay’s for being ‘offensive and inappropriate’), property damage to Brian’s Minim House & irrigation equipment, a personal assault on Brian from Lee and Jay with firewood (from which the owner still bears a significant scar), illegal dumping a large pile of construction debris upon departure, etc. Sad but all verifiably true. Also sad that complete falsifications and misrepresentations have ensued to cover poor behavior. Underneath it all one imagines there is a shame and suffering which we all hope may one day be relieved.
- So: it is with sadness any of this has to be written, but it was the decision of Jay and Lee to first go to the press and make further efforts to turn a private matter public, and to continue to reinterpret the past rather than moving on to new and better projects. In the end, some risks taken, hard lessons learned, and the foolishness completely forgiven. We wish them well on their new endeavor to start a tiny house community. Here on the lot, pop went the pop-up, and the nonprofit MicroShowcase was born in current form. –Jan 2015