Homesteading for Renters

For centuries now, owning a home or plot of land has been a linchpin in the mythology of the American Dream.  It’s also a huge commitment, and in a fickle economy and tech-driven job climate that beckons people to all corners of the nation at the drop of a hat, it’s no longer a sure bet.  Renting remains the most sensible option for millions in the U.S. and the only option for millions more.

Despite the dwindling force in our culture of a permanent sense of place—or perhaps because of it—enthusiasm for self-reliance in every dimension of homemaking is only on the rise.  A quick internet search for “urban homesteading,” “indoor gardening,” or any of dozens of related terms confirms that the appeal of this way of life endures even in decidedly modern contexts.

Homesteading for Renters
Honey wine (mead) brewing on the counter.

Homesteading for renters, especially in the city, presents major challenges not faced by property owners, but also the opportunity to redefine what it means to make the most of your situation, and to learn a lot along the way—two cores of self-sufficiency.  The keys to homesteading for renters are a) working with what you’ve got in both the practical and interpersonal senses, and b) making “root-level” undertakings like vegetable gardening or home-improvement work in impermanent settings.

Urban homesteading seems to attract passionate newcomers—people who are constantly making plans to conquer one form of “doing-it-yourself” or another.  Commendable though this ambition may be, we do well to remember that homesteading is ultimately a way of life, not a hobby to be mastered.  This seemingly lofty notion has some very real consequences for renters in particular.

I first became excited about urban homesteading while living in a yard-less, one-room rental in Chicago.  My initial seed of curiosity about canning quickly blossomed into a voracious interest in gardening, composting, rainwater collection, and even energy-saving electrical projects.  However, after a few humbling experiences washing clothes by hand without a drying line and trying to play plumber in a building with 100-year-old fixtures, I began to accept that self-reliance on the domestic front is always relative to your unique circumstances.  If you spend every second of free time fussing over a hydroponic tomato-garden in your studio apartment, you’re setting yourself up to neglect other, more common-sense, tasks and possibly even burn out altogether.

Focus your energy, instead, on activities and challenges that match your physical constraints—think (creatively yet humbly) inside your box, and find ways to stretch one lightweight effort into two or more.  Looking to brew your own fermented elixirs?  While definitely in vogue, brewing beer requires plenty of dedicated space for large vessels.  Simple winemaking, on the other hand, can happen in a gallon jug on a countertop, and a little extra can be your first homemade vinegar.

Landlord not keen on a backyard dairy?  Experiment with making oat milk.  Soak rolled oats, then drain off the soaking water, blend the oats with fresh, pure water in a 1:3 ratio, and strain off the resulting “milk” for smoothies or cereal.  Take it a step further—in true homesteader fashion—and turn the pulp into oat flour.  Dry it on a baking sheet in an oven set to “low” (prop the door a crack to keep it from cooking as it dries) for a gluten-free flour.

Homesteading for Renters

Chores offer another example of homesteading relativity.  In her book Home Comforts, author Cheryl Mendelson points out that, “it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can be more yourself than you can be anywhere else.”  If this is true, then diligence in a fitting daily routine trumps the most heroic single homesteading effort in carving out a sense of place.  And although renters might, at first glance, seem to have less of a stake in keeping things spic-n-span, the very opposite is often true; anyone who’s frantically mopped, scrubbed, dusted, and hauled junk prior to a lease expiring to recoup on his or her security deposit knows the value of small, regular cleanups over massive “hail Mary” efforts.

Homesteading for Renters
Feeding my brown-rice sourdough starter.

Unlike more traditional homesteads, a smart schedule of upkeep for renters is likely to look very different from household to household.  For instance, instead of shoveling hay to the barn for livestock first thing on waking, I tend to our pet rabbits, feed my prized gluten-free sourdough starter, and water indoor plants.  However, if you don’t own pets and are often pressed for time in the morning before hustling off to work, you might make a quick, unassuming ritual of putting away dry dishes from the night before or picking up stray pieces of clothing.  These small gestures go a long way in reinforcing the fact that homesteading is fundamentally about, very intentionally, defining your relationship with the world around you.

Speaking of relationships and “working with what you’ve got”, it’s time to address the metaphorical elephant in the room: your landlord, property manager, or similar figure.  The dynamic between renter and owner is one of the most fraught in history, and has made for more than a few compelling plot lines; The Grapes of Wrath, held as a touchstone of American literature, centers around homesteaders who are also tenants on another’s land.

While, we hope, the average renting homesteader these days can’t relate too much to the fictional Joad family’s plight, good terms between lessor and lessee are just as vital as ever—and (especially in cities), the former is usually in a position of greater leverage when it comes to picking and choosing the latter.

First, there’s the unfortunate news: even in places where renters experience unprecedented degrees of protection (and keep in mind that your rights vary drastically from state to state or even county to county), the burden rests quite squarely on you to go above and beyond the minimal requirements of being a “good tenant” if you hope to make lasting changes to a property.  In other words, don’t count on paying rent on time and obeying noise ordinances—things legally stipulated by your lease, anyway—to persuade your landlord to let you keep bees in the backyard or cut off sections of the downspout.  As opposed to a homeowner situation, your greatest asset in these pursuits isn’t your technical competence or chutzpah, but your ability to a) keep the channels of communication open and b) become your own best salesperson.

The first of these points is easier to enact but often neglected.  We tend to approach our landlords only when problems arise, which predisposes them to view us—most generously—as the bearers of bad news.  Instead, update your landlord however you can on a regular basis (every time you pay rent is an obvious choice).  For instance, I’ve gotten in the habit of letting my current landlord know whenever I change the filters or smoke alarm batteries in our house.  Volunteering this kind of information quietly fosters respect without coming off as pandering; it shows that you are genuinely invested in the state of your living quarters.

Once you’ve cultivated trust through kind and meaningful communication, it’s much easier to “sell” the benefits of more visible homesteading jobs.  The key here is empathy with a landlord or manager’s concerns.  For several years, I rented a room in a massive (and charmingly dilapidated) log cabin on 0.9 acres of land on Nashville’s east side.  A pet peeve of our landlord was that the sprawling yard remain well-trimmed and free of refuse.  Although she was usually skeptical of any alterations to the property, I was able to convince her that a compost pile would help in this effort; my roommates and I could efficiently clear grass clippings and tree branches and save her the cost of a yard-waste pickup.

At the end of the day, of course, there’s simply no guarantee that a landlord will be sympathetic to the kinds of pursuits that homesteaders value, no matter how obvious the benefits.  A friend of mine was once actually docked several hundred dollars on his security deposit for having installed weather stripping that improved his rental home’s energy efficiency threefold!  Although he eventually recouped on this amount through small-claims court, not every renter has the time, money, or sheer mental fortitude to pursue legal recourse.  As is the case with so much in life, your best bet is to tread lightly.

Homesteading for Renters
Straw bales up on risers.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to minimize your footprint on a rental property while still making a big impact on your home life.  The trick is to imagine yourself in the Joad family’s position, needing to make full use of your homestead while being ready to, quite literally, pack up the ranch at a moment’s notice.

If you’re lucky enough to have some yard space, one of the simplest approaches to keeping things portable is to engineer your outdoor projects—gardens, chicken coops, solar ovens, et cetera—so that they stand off the ground.  Straw-bale gardens offer a great example.  In case you’ve missed the hype, these farm byproducts are becoming a fantastically popular alternative to traditional beds due to their low time investment (forget the shovel!) and high vegetable yield.  We picked up our straw bales from a local co-op for about $4 each (many farm operations advertise them on websites like Craigslist for as little as $2 or $3 per bale) and set them up close to our rental home’s exterior on small pieces of scrap wood.

A little decomposition turns straw into a nutrient-rich and well-draining growth medium.  Some gardeners like to speed up the process by adding nitrogen sources such as blood meal to their bales and soaking them thoroughly with water.  We decided to take a more passive route, covering them with soil and letting them compost slowly over the winter months.  When you’re ready to plant, simply dig out some root space for your transplants or shallow holes filled with potting soil for direct seeding.  Beyond minimizing damage to the lawn, keeping your bales elevated also improves drainage and thwarts weed growth.

Homesteading for Renters
Raised compost pen from pallets.

Straw bales are solid, so they’re easy enough to prop up, but using re-purposed shipping pallets or old table tops as platforms lets you achieve the same effect with a surprising array of homestead-worthy projects.  With our kitchen-scrap and rabbit-litter production far outpacing a humble indoor worm bin, it was obvious we needed a large-scale outdoor compost solution.  The trouble was that we didn’t know how long we’d be living at our rental home, so asking our landlord about starting a compost pile in the backyard seemed undue.  By nailing beams from one wooden pallet upright into a second “platform” pallet and wrapping the whole deal in outdoor mesh, I was able to create a an entirely self-contained compost pen that sat off the ground on plastic stands.  And while I certainly don’t look forward to the day when we’ll have to grab a few extra hands and load it onto a truck bed, its design lets us do just that.

The second major area of homesteading that can confound renters involves home improvement.  Saving money and energy is at the forefront of any sustainable mindset, but major repairs to a house or apartment are a landlord’s responsibility.  Therefore, where the rule for many outdoor projects is portability, indoor modifications skew toward “undo-ability.”  Requiring minimal technical skill, indoor greywater initiatives are a great place to start.  By disconnecting your bathroom sink’s p-trap, you can easily collect enough water to flush your toilet by pouring it directly into the bowl.  If you have a compost pile or garden, you can augment this alternative approach with a bucket filled with sawdust for urine only, which happens to be a fantastic source of nitrogen.  Sawdust is highly absorbent and will readily neutralize the odor.  When it’s time to move out, simply screw the p-trap back onto the drain pipe.

Homesteading for Renters
Bathroom sink p-trap disconnected with bucket underneath.

Efficiency gaps in heating and cooling can also pose particular challenges.  Once again, the question is knowing what to focus your time and energy on; even if your landlord offers to reimburse you, installing a new set of double-paned windows can be much more of a hassle than it’s worth.  Instead, use double-stick tape around the metal part of your frames to affix insulation film (more or less specialized plastic wrap) for the truly frigid months.  Gaps in drywall around plumbing fixtures can be easily, cheaply, and temporarily filled in with newspaper and strips of thick cardboard.  Foam weather stripping is also an exceptionally cost-effective approach for sealing up drafty door frames, but keep in mind the tendency for adhesive material to tear off paint or wood varnish.

The Homesteading Act of 1862 promised 160 acres to anyone who could sustain themselves on that parcel for five years.  It was a bold piece of legislation that, in idealistically American fashion, presumed sheer hard work as a basis of reward.  Over 150 years later, the great challenge to today’s homesteading renter may not be so much working hard as working smart, but the promise is equally powerful: by asserting a first-hand connection to our shelter, health and sustenance—no matter the name on the property title—we come closer to a peace of mind that might be worth just as much as a piece of land was in centuries past.


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