A Visit with Kathy Rose, Tiny House Pioneer

Just looking for a simple plot of land, for a wee abode.

Pretty much the whole house: Kathy at the dining table, across from the kitchen. Above is a sleeping loft for guests, and behind her is the bathroom, left, and bedroom, right. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Kathy Rose — you might remember her from the Wooden Tent, which was both a place in which she lived and taught photography, and an actual “wooden tent” that had been moved from the Campground — is about to downsize.

She’s got the house: a 144-square-foot abode (that’s right, about 12 by 12. The whole house. It’s called a tiny house for a reason). Now she just needs a place to put it.

When Kathy, who’s 78 now, learned last June that she would need to move from her home, she visited housing and elderly housing offices, and learned about the long lists of people waiting for similar places. So she had to get creative. We started our conversation on the way to see her tiny house.

Valerie Sonnenthal: When did you first become interested in tiny houses?

Kathy Rose: I first became interested when I started looking online at the end of last summer. There was a tiny house newsletter, a tiny-house journey someone was taking around the United States. I didn’t know anyone who had one. They’re mostly in California, Oregon, Colorado, Texas, Idaho, Washington State.

I really liked them. You could order one online, and say what you want, and they’re around $60,000, all set with kitchen and bathroom. My friend Amanda Dickinson said one day while we were watching a Patriots game, “Someone said they saw an ad for a tiny house in the paper.”

I said, “Wh-a-t? That’s good to know.” So I went and looked in the previous three Martha’s Vineyard Times, and I found this little ad, and I called the number of the photographer who’d done the pictures of the tiny house. She gave me the number of the guy who had the tiny house on the Island.

I remember walking inside and just saying, I feel like I’m at home here. I said I’d give him a down payment, which I gave him the next week. And then I spent two months trying to find financing for the rest. I contacted like 10 banks, online banks, other banks on the Cape, and I just couldn’t get financing. I’m not sure what it was — maybe my age. My credit was excellent, so who knows? And then I went to the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, and they said OK. It was Jan. 30.

So I signed on the house, and then all the snows came, so there was no way to get in it with all the snow piled up in front of it.

VS: Did the person you bought it from build it?

KR: It was built in Vineyard Haven and then moved as a shell by truck, and then [the former owner] built the interior and the rest. The problem is finding somewhere to move it.

VS: Do you have many books?

KR: My computer has most of what I need, and I go to the library a lot. I like to read books on my iPhone, because you just flip the page, and I’m a slow reader.

VS: The house is … miniature, but you’ve got lots of people to visit. And when it’s warm, who wants to be in their house anyway?

KR: It’s got a little porch, and I can make a patio with a table and chairs.

VS: How have you tried to reach out to people besides posting on Facebook that you are looking for a place to house your tiny house?

KR: There’s a website called tinyhousecommunity.com that has lists of people who can give you land to live on. I called two friends who have enough land, but cannot help because of town rules. The next Catch-22 is they want me to have a trailer license. Insurance won’t insure me because they don’t know about tiny houses, and I said, Just insure my trailer. And just call it a load. Nantucket just passed an ordinance allowing tertiary dwellings, which essentially means tiny houses. So now you can put in a house that’s under 400 square feet.

VS: Which we do not have. We have that it’s illegal to have a house under 400 square feet.

KR: Right, and then the housing manager here told me I had to add a foot or something, because you had to be 150 square feet to be a secondary dwelling.

VS: That seems ridiculous, because this is a primary dwelling.

KR: For me it is. That’s right.

VS: Here you are, the pioneer on Martha’s Vineyard, ahead of the trend. It would be so great if we could have four of these on one lot with a shared space. You could minimize your kitchen and eating area, and there would be a shared space for that, creating a supportive living situation.

KR: That’s what they’re building in Vermont, up above Montpelier. And California, and Oregon. And Jay Shafer is planning a whole tiny house community.

VS: Here?

KR: No, out in California.

I just have to get a place, hopefully on an Island farm. There is a place up in Vermont, but I don’t want to really move. I love Vermont; we had a house up there for 10 years. I used to go skiing up there, fishing, but we still had the house on the Vineyard. I don’t want to leave the Vineyard.

VS: Have other people on the Island contacted you about tiny houses?

KR: Oh yeah! I put a post on Islanders Talk [on Facebook], and I got over 100 comments. And it started a discussion about fair housing. I felt that was really good. There was nothing on the town docket in this year’s election. Other people wrote me notes that it needs to be discussed, go for it, love the idea, why don’t we have them on the Vineyard, and I’m also going to start a petition to change the ordinances — in each town, first Tisbury, and you only need 10 signatures. The towns don’t accept tiny houses without a septic system, which is about twelve grand. I don’t have what they call blackwater, I only have graywater from the sink and the shower. And what I’m going to do is buy all biodegradable products, so that all the graywater can wash out. I got another thing, which is really amazing, for $50 on Northern Tool. Once you charge it up, it’s got 4,000 watts [of power], and it’s got a plug on it. It’s really for your car battery, and you can plug in 2 USBs.

VS: Good for emergencies or dark days.

KR: Only $50.

VS: Where are you going to put your winter wardrobe, now that it’s summer?

KR: My winter wardrobe? Oh, well this is what you do. If you’ve ever watched anything about tiny houses, you lay out all your stuff and then you cut it down in half, and then you cut it down in a quarter. Oh, and my builder just loved it — he expected not be able to walk in here, not to like it, because he’s 6’3”. He said it’s got fir wood in there and here, really good wood. And this is my favorite wall covering.

VS: Beadboard.

KR: That’s very Campgroundy. And I’ll have two folding chairs and two director’s chairs. I can’t wait to just sit in there with my computer.