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.
She moved to Denver four years ago, when her fiancé was offered a gig here. She landed a position with the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance; she was thrilled to find a job at which she could use the skills she learned at DePaul University — where, she says, she racked up student loans she is "still paying for and probably always will."
When she and her fiancé broke up, Rost-Rothman bought a duplex on Grape Street.
Taylor invited her over to see her place, which had a similar layout. "She went in on me about the neighbor behind her," Rost-Rothman says. "I had this gut feeling: Just nod. She made him out to be a mortal enemy."
Still, for many months the two neighbors got along, even building a shared fence.
But when Rost-Rothman built a pergola, Taylor flinched. "From then on, it was like she hated me," Rost-Rothman says.
Not long after she bought her place, Rost-Rothman's job fell through. She started working airport security for the City and County of Denver, but "it was the worst job ever," she says. "It created a culture of stagnant policy-making." So she quit that job, but then couldn't find another.
With a mountain of debt and no income, Rost-Rothman decided to start paying her mortgage by renting out her house. That, coupled with a slew of housesitting, dog-sitting and babysitting gigs and a steady unemployment check, allowed her to scrape by. But when her unemployment ended, she needed another source of income.
While fasting for Yom Kippur, she dreamed up the idea of a tiny house in her back yard.
A few days later, she contacted Tiny Diamond Homes, a family-owned tiny-house builder based in Morrison, which walked her through the process. She bought a 24-foot-long trailer — two feet longer than RVs are permitted to be in Denver — and started construction.
Rost-Rothman never described the project to Taylor, who thought her neighbor was installing a new porch. But then the frame went up — fifteeen and a half feet from the ground.
A couple days into the build, Taylor confronted Rost-Rothman. "She was not in a mood to have a reasonable conversation; she was angry," Rost-Rothman remembers.
Taylor began calling the city to complain about the structure. In response, Denver Department of Community Planning and Development inspector Manuel Lovato showed up and began issuing a series of warnings to Rost-Rothman: The trailer was too long, RVs are not permitted in yards, accessory dwelling units require permits, and on and on.
But as the warnings piled up, the tiny home stayed. Frustrated, Taylor did some research and discovered that Rost-Rothman was renting out her home via Airbnb, "the world leader in travel rentals," as the company's website boasts. The city's zoning code prevents short-term rentals in south Park Hill.
Lovato issued more warnings. "In every instance of him issuing something against me, it was inaccurate," says Rost-Rothman. "I don't know what the politics were for the inspector or why he would respond the way he did."
"The main issue is the building of the structure on the back of the property without a zoning permit, building permit or regards to the safety of the structure," says department spokeswoman Andrea Burns. "Also, it's on a trailer. There was maybe an attempt to call it an RV at one point, but you can't park an RV in your back yard.... Our inspector has been in touch with the property owner on multiple occasions and given her multiple opportunities to change course. She continued to build the structure after being told it was not permitted."
As for tiny houses, they "are allowed in the city of Denver, if they make code," Burns says. "That involves a zoning permit and a building permit. We realize there are a lot of new trends and opportunities with smaller housing styles, and those are perfectly fine. The way this one transpired was not in accordance with city code in any way."
But Rost-Rothman says that Lovato wouldn't tell her what precise code she was violating. "I'm not confrontational; I don't like to argue," she says. "But he was really belligerent. I can only imagine what else he might do, and that's troubling. I was like, 'You've got to stop this. This is harassment.' These are non-thinking, robotic enforcers."
Finally, Rost-Rothman got a hearing with the Board of Adjustment to contest Lovato's claims.
When the Park Hill Neighborhood Association showed up with Taylor, Rost-Rothman felt betrayed by her beloved community. "It was like Mean Girls," she says. "Every other neighbor is really supportive about this."
Although no neighbor spoke up in Rost-Rothman's defense, friend José Carmona did. So did Cheryl Coates from Tiny Diamond Homes. But the board sided with the city and said Rost-Rothman was violating multiple zoning codes.
"I went home and went to bed for two days," she says. "I know Denver is trying to be a city of progress and innovation. This is really disappointing that this is happening here."
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Taylor isn't much happier with the city, which she says has stopped taking her calls. "Everyone's making me out to be a horrible bitch that's stopping her Airbnb. This could have been done the right way. She could have put it against the back wall," Taylor says.
"My dad says I'm the Rosa Parks of tiny homes," Rost-Rothman says. "I've got generations of ancestors screaming for me right now." So she's secured a second hearing with the Board of Adjustment and has also written a petition demanding that the city clearly define short-term rentals in a way that would protect her Airbnb rentals. In the meantime, her tiny house stays up; she says she's put almost $35,000 into it so far.
Recently, Rost-Rothman traveled to San Francisco to attend Peers' SHARE conference and learn more about the sharing economy. After the conference, she traveled to Portland to interview for jobs. "I'm taking this bad boy to Portland," she says. "In Portland, my friends are fighting over who gets the tiny house in their back yard."
But first she needs to get it out of her current back yard through a single swinging gate. Not surprisingly, Rost-Rothman has an idea: If Xcel temporarily disconnects a tangle of wires, the neighboring apartment trims its trees and a metal fence is taken down, she'll be able to get her tiny home off her lot and on the road. "Denver may not be ready for me, but Portland is," she says.