The tiny house craze seems to have enveloped the Virgin Islands and the joke about tiny houses and their rentability just keeps getting bigger. Stained Glass Irene, who is almost always right, told me never to relate this following true tiny house story in print. Did I listen to her? Nope.
This tale is macabre and not suited for the faint of heart, but I offer it to you here as a cautionary tale in a world gone tiny house mad.
In the spirit of full disclosure, you should know that I have a tiny house. It is in Cruz Bay and was designed by the amazing Coral Bay architect turned painter Carolyn Caldwell. It may be the smallest home on St. John with just one large room measuring 14 feet square, which makes it just a little larger than some of the walk-in closets in the villas out in Peter Bay.
Ms. Caldwell, who last I heard was in Stonington Maine, designed it so the prevailing tradewinds would perennially cool the place.
Frank Bay artist Elaine Estern featured my tiny house in one of her annual calendars under the theme of island cottages. But Elaine, who loves revisionist history as much as Ms. Caldwell, left out a few geographic details in her rendering.
First came Grande Bay. I personally could not drink enough greenies to soften the noise they made breaking up the Bluebitch stone in my front yard.
Next came the current development, about a queen size bed length away from the cottage. This new edifice towers over the cottage and sort of resembles a giant federal building in Washington D.C.
Needless to say, the cooling breezes envisioned by Ms. Caldwell have been eliminated. Still, people really enjoy staying there.
Stained Glass Irene and I took this nugget with us briefly to another island – people will rent anything if it is near the beach.
What we did is what most every homeowner on St. John does in one form or another. We decided to fix up the shack in the back of our island beach house in Florida and rent it out, even if it wasn’t technically ours. What could go wrong?
So the work began. Carpets were torn out, floors were painted, Irene sewed curtains and we raided the thrift stores to furnish the tiny shack turned bungalow. And the renters came. They found us through word of mouth. They paid cash and stayed for the weekend. On Monday all that was left was a little sand in the shower. What a boon this was. All of a sudden life seemed affordable.
Then we got greedy.
Winter was coming fast and we both knew we had to be on St. John for Christmas. So we decided to rent the bungalow full time and split for home.
We found a sweet little older lady named Katie to move in. A week later we were sitting at Hawksnest beach when she called to say she locked herself out.
“Try climbing in the window, ” I told her.
To my surprise she did.
But then things started to go downhill fast. It was a cold winter. Katie had enough space heaters to melt an iceberg. It was lucky she didn’t burn the block down. Oh, and there was another small detail. This wasn’t our house.
The snowbound landlord called me one day, I believe I was at Hawksnest again and asked if he could drive down from Virginia and stay in the shack in the backyard for a week in the spring. We never really mentioned it to him that we fixed up the shack, let alone rented it.
I told him no, which didn’t go over too well. I didn’t want to displace Katie after she spent the coldest months of the year out in the shack so I came clean with the landlord and told him there was someone staying in the shack.
That went over much worse.
Pretty soon I’m back in Florida and everyone is furious with me. The landlord wants his house back, Katie doesn’t have anyplace to go and Irene blames it all on me.
So in the middle of all this squabbling, Katie asks me if her son can come stay in the shack with her for a few days, she hasn’t seen him in six years. I, of course, say yes. How could things get any worse?
Well, it turns out she hasn’t seen her son Ray in six years because he has been in prison. Ray is very tall, thin, bald as a gobi and covered in tattoos. From the moment he arrives he is ducking around the yard chain smoking cigarettes all hours of the day and night.
Now Irene is ready to kill me. The landlord says he is evicting us if he can’t come down the following week. I’m in big trouble.
About five days into Ray’s stay in the backyard bungalow I am awakened at dawn to see him out in the street in front of my house, waving his giant arms and yelling into his phone. I put on my pants, open the screen door to our double-wide and give Ray that school teacher look.
He looks back at me, arms stretched out like wings and says, “Mom won’t wake up.”
Well before I know it the EMTs arrive. They sprint out to the bungalow with all their equipment. After a few minutes, they walked slowly out of the house. Katie was dead.
My jaw drops as they tell me this and then I hear the screech of tires on the street in front of the house. A police officer charges in the front door. He sees me at the kitchen sink and I just point out back to the bungalow. Without a word, he sprints out back to meet the EMT’s. The officer surveys the scene has a brief word with Ray and calls for back up.
This is where things really get confusing. The yellow crime scene tape goes up and the officer tells me an active homicide investigation is underway.
A giant mobile home type trailer with the words County Homicide Investigation Unit pulls up and blocks the street in front of the house. All the neighbors are peering out the window now, wondering if I have killed Irene or vice a versa. The coroner arrives with a team of photographers. The cops are drilling Ray about every detail of his life. He is distraught and asks me to go down to the corner and get him some cigarettes because he is clearly going to be with these police for some time.
Finally, the coroner tells me Katie died of natural causes. A sweet lady, she had lived a very tough life.
I asked the cop who busted through the door earlier what I should do about Ray.
“We will take care of that,” he told me, “We have some old warrants on him.”
So in short order, a hearse pulled up and took Katie away. Then the cops put handcuffs on Ray and walked him out and put him in a cruiser, bound for jail.
It wasn’t even noon yet. Both Irene and I commented that at least Katie got to spend a few nice days with her son before she died. Then the phone rang. It was the landlord. He was demanding to know if the lady was still living in the shack out back.
“No, she is gone,” I told him.
That was the end of my tiny house rental career.
With conventional housing being so expensive in the Virgin Islands, it is tempting to convert every available space into a tiny house. However, please be safe and legal. If you don’t own it, ask permission, or risk a misadventure like mine!
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About Bob Tis
A long time St. John resident and career journalist Bob currently writes for Relix Magazine, the St. Augustine Record and What To Do – VI. He is the author of the Hearts of Palm, Down Island and co-author of Code Word: Freedom. He lives in Cruz Bay.