Nissa Rost-Rothman greets the two hippies from northern Virginia who have been staying at her home, the back half of a single-story duplex in south Park Hill. For $145 a night, Airbnb guests rent her place and she couch-surfs. Though Rost-Rothman doesn't feel well, she's bubbly as she shows off her soon-to-be-finished tiny home in the back yard, which she hopes to rent for additional income or stay in when her house is occupied.
Her contractor recently put the axles back on the tiny house's trailer, but she warns visitors to tread lightly until he is certain construction is up to par. The freshly painted interior includes a sleeping loft, a bathtub, a couch that turns into a bed, and a kitchen. It will not be a complete kitchen, Rost-Rothman explains, because structures with full kitchens fall under the city's definition of an "accessory dwelling unit" and require building permits. So while she plans to have a sink, she will forgo an oven and stove and instead equip the house with a microwave and a hot plate. For similar reasons, she has scratched plans to tap into city utilities and is figuring out a backup plan for generating power.
On the other side of the fence, Patricia Taylor sits on her back porch, looking northeast over peonies, irises, dahlias and pansies. She doesn't want to look south anymore. When she does, she sees Rost-Rothman's fifteen-and-a-half-foot slab of gray paneling buttressing her fence and blocking her once-idyllic view. From this angle, the so-called tiny house looks gigantic. "As you can see, it's not small," Taylor says.
Two windows cut out of the gray slab face her small back yard, which she once considered "a paradise." Now she never knows if someone is peering out of those windows into her yard. "It's been pretty fucked," she says. "It takes a hell of a lot to get me upset. I don't know why I'm letting this bother me so much."
But as she tells her story, it becomes obvious. "I was a runaway at fourteen, and I never looked back," Taylor says. "I am still estranged from the people that I ran from. It was a long, hard road, and everything I have achieved, I did by myself." When she was a teen, she lived with other runaways in motels. Her boyfriend died of an overdose in her bed. An older computer-science teacher took her in and gave her an education in culture and the arts. They traveled Europe together. At twenty, she left him and moved to Denver. She gave birth to her son, Max, when she was 24. Together they spent many cold nights in a Geo Metro parked near City Park, where she turned homelessness into a game to entertain her young son.
With a kid to support, Taylor took the GED test, which she miraculously passed. She struggled through two years of remedial classes — basic courses such as division — to get to the college level. Initially, she planned to study to be a dental hygienist, but slots were limited. Her chemistry teacher suggested that she become a nurse. Maintaining a stellar GPA, she earned grants that paid for her entire education.
Years of homelessness prepared her for the stress that nurses contend with. Working in a long-term acute-care unit, she deals with people on the edge of death, victims of car accidents, shootings and full-body burns. Ninety percent of the people she sees will be dead in three months. She works with patients and their families in those last days, as they decide how long is too long to let their loved ones stay in a coma. She says she has "euthanized" more people than she can count, pulling the plug when the patients or the families finally decide it is over. Toughened by the streets, she never sheds a tear.
When she comes home, she escapes into the garden. That's why she bought this house — the first house she has lived in since she was fourteen.
She scrolls through photos of last summer's crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and broccoli. This year, she's not sure she'll bother planting. She fears that vegetables will not survive the shadow of her neighbor's tiny house.
Rost-Rothman has seen tough times, too. Her father was an American labor-studies professor always looking for stable employment; he'd grown up in a left-leaning Jewish family during the McCarthy era. When he was a kid, the FBI raided his basement during the Rosenberg trials.
Her mom was a workaholic entrepreneur who was rarely at home for the kids. When she wasn't working on her business, she kept busy with the American Indian Movement, serving as a moderator in the Wounded Knee trials, where she protected indigenous witnesses from government harassment.
Having grown up in a family that had firsthand experience with state repression, Rost-Rothman says she has little tolerance for government scrutiny.