The Downside of Living in a Treehouse

A 65-year-old Miami woman has been living in a tree on her property for the past decade. Now, she’s fighting with the county to stay put.

Sep 16, 2016
Outside Magazine
The Downside of Living in a Treehouse

Shawnee Chasser is in the midst of a legal battle to continue living in her ten-year-old Miami treehouse.    Photo: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Shawnee Chasser might be the most famous woman in Miami this week. The purple-haired, 65-year-old grandmother has been the subject of feature stories published by the Miami Herald and Washington Post, plus a host of news websites, due to her battle with Miami-Dade County over the legality of her 10-year-old treehouse.

The open-air wooden structure surrounds a strangler fig tree and an oak in the yard of her late son’s home in north Miami. It includes an office and kitchen (complete with stove and refrigerator) on the ground floor and her tiny bedroom on the second floor, which is accessed by a small staircase and covered by a wood-shingle roof. In the lush yard out front, there's a manmade pool and waterfall.

Chasser's daughter Lantana at the treehouse in 2007.   Photo: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Sublime as it is, the treehouse was not constructed according to the Florida Building Code or with the proper permits for electricity or running water. As such, the county has given Chasser 120 days to bring it up to code or see it demolished. She says it would cost $150,000 to do the former—a task that would essentially mean rebuilding it from scratch, with permits and inspections to ensure it was hurricane-safe—but she vows not to let it be demolished, either. Chasser says she has already paid $10,000 in fines and attorney fees, emptying her savings. On Monday she launched a GoFundMe account with the help of friends, since she does not use the Internet.

The county has cited findings by its Unsafe Structures Panel that deem the treehouse to be a hazard. But Chasser, a native Miamian who has also lived in a teepee and another treehouse, among other outdoor structures, and makes a living selling organic popcorn and renting out a smaller dwelling on Airbnb, claims she’s just being hassled for money. She spoke to Outside about her plight, what it’s like living in a treehouse for a decade, and how Shawnee’s Paradise came to exist in the first place.

  Photo: Courtesy of Shawnee Chasser

OUTSIDE: What’s the last week been like for you?
​CHASSER: Insanely wonderful. I just got off the phone with the BBC in London. I didn’t want everything to come to this. I begged code enforcement for a year. I tried to determine every possible way out. I paid them $10,000; that was all of my money. And they pushed it.

What’s so special about your house?
It feels like a mansion to me. I raised my adopted angel daughter in it, and I wake up every morning in paradise. I have a little bedroom upstairs that I sleep in, and a tiny little room below that I built for my daughter. She’s the reason why there’s WiFi and power, because I was raising a 13-year-old when we moved here.

How do you get up to your bedroom?
I have a little staircase. It surrounds my beautiful strangler fig, which is living in harmony with my oak tree.

What kind of materials did you use to construct it?
Well, when I started building my first treehouse, in 1990, I wanted to use pallets. Then I realized that I would be taking care of my treehouse my whole life and rebuilding it. So I ended up going to Home Depot and getting pressure-treated wood.

Did you build that first one yourself?
No, I just dreamed it. I knew I didn’t need doors or windows, and I put an ad in the paper. This guy came along and started building, and my brother looked at it and went, “Oh, my god, there’s no way that’s going to be safe.” So my brother took it over and we built it on telephone poles that the telephone company gave us for free, and he made it amazing. In 1992, when it was finished and Hurricane Andrew came through and we had 140 mph winds, it withstood the storm. It also made it through hurricanes Wilma and Katrina.

Where you in the treehouse for any of those storms?
No. I love the outdoors, but I’m not that silly. My brother has a main house where the first treehouse was built, and now I have a main house that I can go to on this land, which is about a third of an acre. I’m not going to sit in my treehouse during a hurricane.

What are your favorite features of your current home?
When you look out from my tiny living room and office, you see paradise. My friend spent the night recently, and she said, “Wow, I love your front window.” And I said, “Yeah, and I don’t even have to clean it.” The kitchen is so darn little and cute, but I’ve cooked for 40 people in that kitchen. When I put on Beethoven in the morning really loud, I just can’t believe I am actually living this wonderful life.

What do you think will happen to your home?
I’m hoping that most of [the violations and fines] will be dismissed. I just want them to leave me alone and grandmother me in—write a new clause that has never been used yet. In the age of women’s liberation, I want to be grandmothered in.

Filed To: Treehouses

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