In Oakland, (Rental) Urban Homesteading Done Right

For many an aspiring backyard farmer, urban chicken-keeper, amateur apiarist and millennial back-to-the-land type, the one thing that often prevents them from fully achieving their dreams of self-reliance is their housing status. Or, to be more exact, the fact that they rent instead of own their homes.

In a fresh new video from faircompanies, we get an extensive tour of a rental property homestead in East Oakland, California, that stands as proof that growing food — thriving bee colonies and a brood of happy hens included — on private property isn’t exclusively an owners-only affair. And as the urban homestead in question — dubbed the "Kansas Street Farm" by 20-something renter and recent college grad Sheila Cassani — goes to show, starting a backyard farm in an urban area doesn’t necessarily involve forking over a ton of cash (or bringing in a backhoe).

“As renters we’re just here putting money in; it’s our personal investment so we’re really conscious of some ways we can utilize the space without having to make a really big financial investment so we basically used whatever was already here,” Cassani explains.

Although Cassani doesn’t really go into detail about the exact arrangements she has with her “pretty flexible” and “totally encouraging” landlord (or whether or not she and her partner Matthew get a bit bumped off the rent each month in exchange for a braid of garlic, two-dozen eggs and a bottle of her homemade, plum-infused “gypsy gin”), the whole situation seems rather cozy, ideal, trusting.

And Cassani does realize this, noting that when she and Matthew first moved into a small cottage at the rear of the rental property and began transforming it into an "engine of production," they did so knowing they were going to stick around for a “few years at least” and felt confident putting down roots, literally and figuratively.

Even though her own rental situation is long-ish term, Cassani — also an expert free-cycler and sidewalk scavenger — encourages other renters not to shy away from homesteading if their unique housing circumstances are more ephemeral in nature. “... taking advantage of pots and containers for growing is a great way to experiment with these activities and become familiar and still have the mobility to move on when you need to,” she explains.

And while her landlord would appear to be a mensch of the highest order, the kind of guy or gal who doesn’t care if their tenant has taken it upon themselves to build a DIY fly trap entrapment system to help feed a hungry brood of hens, there are things that Cassani wants to do but can’t, including installing solar and greywater systems.

In addition to substantial landscaping work to make way for lush veggie and herb gardens, the creation of “an extensive chicken area” on the property that allows the resident hens to enjoy as much of a free-range experience that they possibly can in the confines of an urban backyard and the more recent addition of a beehive, another homesteading-centric enhancement to the property is a city of Oakland-subsidized rain barrel (currently empty due to the California drought, as Cassani points out). And when Cassani eventually moves on, so will the rain barrel. “It’s simple as a renter just to hook that up to a downspout,” she says. “It’s something that when we move on, we can totally load up and take with us.”

“I think our landlord is pretty amazed with what we’ve done with this space,” Cassani explains with a laugh. “I think for them, they see this as like ‘hey, we just totally increased their property value by landscaping and planting.’”