Shawnee Chasser remains defiant in the face of treehouse threats

By Travis M. Andrews

The treehouse is under threat but Shawnee Chasser says she will not take it down. Photo / Washington Post
The treehouse is under threat but Shawnee Chasser says she will not take it down. Photo / Washington Post

Shawnee Chasser, 65, sports long locks of purple hair. She refers herself as a "tree hugger" and a "hippie." She makes and sells organic popcorn for a living. In her home are two cats, two dogs and two raccoons. Oh, and that home? It's a treehouse.

For the past 25 years, Chasser has lived in two different treehouses. She's spent the past 10 years in her current treetop villa in Biscayne Gardens, a neighborhood in North Miami, Fla. And this structure is no pied-à-terre, it's her sole residence. In fact, she raised her adopted daughter there.

For years, the treehouse - and the colorful land it looks out upon - have been something of a local landmark. Its official Facebook page is titled "Shawnee's Paradise." On the grounds, near a handmade waterfall carved out of oolitic limestone, is a chickee house, which, until recently, Chasser rented on Airbnb.

There's one issue, though, which originally came to light about a year ago and has left her completely broke - she doesn't have permission from Miami-Dade County for any of it.

Now, Chasser finds herself on the verge of losing the treehouse and the land it's on.

The county has fined her $3,000 thus far, and she faces a possible additional $7,000 in additional liens, according to the Miami Herald. She can't rent out the chickee house any longer. Finally, the county ordered a series of renovations to bring her home up to code.

"They've given me four months to bring it up to code or demolish it," she told The Washington Post in a phone interview. (The Miami Herald reported that, at the end of August, she was given three months to bring it to code.)

Added Chasser: "I would need $150,000 to make all the changes they want."

She doesn't have $150,000, though. In fact, the county's fines thus far have left her "totally broke."

Ricardo Roig, Miami-Dade's code enforcement division director, said the code is in place for residents' safety.

"This has got to be my first time ever of somebody living in a treehouse," Roig told the Miami Herald.

Roig told the newspaper that the county doesn't take issue with her living in one, but it needs to be up to code. As an example, he pointed out that the installation of running water and electricity requires permits, which Chasser has not been given.

All of this, he said, is about her safety. It's especially important in south Florida, which has often been pounded by fierce hurricanes. And, as the Herald reported, "inspectors looked at the cottage and found it constructed in a way that it can't be brought up to county standards."

Chasser's not buying it.

"They're pretending it's because they care about my safety, [but] I'm 65 years old. I can keep myself safe," Chasser said. "They're not here for my protection. They're here for my money."

The bedroom looks particularly nice. Photo / Washington Post
The bedroom looks particularly nice. Photo / Washington Post

For her, it's more than just a treehouse. For one, the trees and the land - which she calls her "paradise" - on which the treehouse rests once belonged to her son Joshua Braden Levy, who died in 2009 of a heart attack. Living on the property, particularly in the trees, connects her with his memory.

"Every one of these trees was the love of his life," she said. "So, I know he's with me all of the time."

And living in a treehouse in particular is a necessity for her lifestyle. She's done it for 25 years, because she's too claustrophobic to live indoors.

After giving birth to her first daughter, her ex-husband surprised her by having an air conditioning unit installed in their house, one that sat on the ground and included walls and a roof.

That night, she woke in a panic, heart pounding in her chest and walls closing in around her. From then on, she knew she couldn't live with AC (the treehouse doesn't have it) or in a traditional house.

At first, she moved into a teepee but found mosquitoes to be a problem.

"The mosquitoes could find their way in but couldn't find their way out," Chasser said. "It was basically a mosquito catcher."

Then it hit her.

"I've always been a tree hugger, so it was kind of a no-brainer that I was one day going to live in a tree," she said.

Her brother helped her build her first treehouse in 1992. It was completed the week Hurricane Andrew hit.

"Everything came down but that treehouse," she said. "I moved in after that, and I have been in heaven since."

Then, 10 years ago, she moved into her current home.

To be clear, it isn't an ordinary treehouse. What likely comes to mind are images of shoddy wooden structures with messily scribbled "No Girls Allowed" signs and smelly, prepubescent boys meeting inside (a la "The Little Rascals"). But Chasser's estate is as far from that image as a tent is from a mansion.

Hers comprises an office, a bedroom and a kitchen. To the chagrin of Miami-Dade County, it's fully wired - which Chasser told The Post is one of the code violations. Her television works, as does her kitchen.

When asked about the treehouse's amenities, Chasser assures The Post that it's as comfortable as any other home.

"It has everything I need," she said. "I have my carrot juicer."

She also has a small camper oven, a three-burner stove and a small refrigerator. It's small, but the same can be said for many of the kitchens in Manhattan or Washington's unique apartments. And Chasser finds hers fully functional.

"I've cooked meals for 40 people in the little kitchen," she said.

The mosquitoes remain her only problem, but it's one she's learned to live with.

"Sometimes, the mosquitoes are so thick in Miami, I think about going to sleep on the couch," Chasser said. "But I can't. I pull the sheets over my head."

She was first slapped with a code violation a year ago, when an inspector appeared on her property after receiving a complaint about her home.

As Chasser tells it, she met a young, single mother who was struggling to make ends meet. The mom couldn't afford a place to live, so Chasser - following her personal code - decided to house the two until they were back on their feet. But one day, Chasser came home to find the 3-year-old on her roof, alone. She told the two to leave. Angry, the mother allegedly called code enforcement.

Whatever the case is, the inspector (and several subsequent ones, Chasser said) found a number of code violations.

"I've literally been crying for a year, and I haven't slept nights. It's been really horrible," Chasser said.

But, following the county's recent ultimatum, she said she's ready for a skirmish.

"I'm ready to fight for my home," she said. "All I know is I'm not taking my treehouse down."

She has experience protesting the government, after all - in 1986, she walked from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., with two children in tow as part of the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, according to the Biscayne Times. She fed hundreds along the way with her popcorn, which she now sells (with a slightly altered recipe) at Whole Foods as Shawnee's Greenthumb Popcorn.

She hasn't yet decided how to proceed. She's looking for a lawyer but can't afford one. She said she may start a GoFundMe campaign.

Whatever route she ends up taking, she's confident that she'll succeed.

"I helped stop the Vietnam War, and I lived through my son's death, and I adopted an African-American girl, who was the hardest thing in my life," Chasser said. "If I can do all that, I can do this."

- Washington Post

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