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RetroSuburbia and the Household Landlord

  • March 6, 2018
  • 7 min read
RetroSuburbia and the Household Landlord

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The next permaculture classic has hit the shelves. David Holgrem’s ‘Retrosuburbia‘, a big colourful book with plenty of diagrams and pictures. It’s hefty and beautiful. I’m working my way through it. So much yes. I want to read it out loud to my housemates.

What I find validating is how many things he writes about that I already do; not just gardening techniques, but how to set your life up. Like balancing hoarding and decluttering, gift economies and raising your children to question the system. There are also lots of projects in there that are still on my to-do list, like building a rocket stove and a greenhouse. It’s a delightful read, both supportive and provocative.

The most inspiring aspect of RetroSuburbia for me as a writer is how many people were involved in creating and supporting it. It contains beautiful drawings, case studies of real places, wisdom from many Australian permies, was edited by many and crowdfunded to publish in Australia. You can read the distribution manifesto here. It’s a real team effort, supported by a strong network of individuals and benefiting from their combined energy and skills. It’s clear that the publishing process holds true to the integrity of what the author is promoting as both theory and practice.

Something I really identified with was the description of the ‘household landlord’. This is under ‘Behavioural Field: 24. Ownership and Living Arrangements’. Holgrem describes the household landlord, or renting out spare rooms, as a ‘downshifting option for both owners and renters thinking about resilience in uncertain futures.’ I have been intentionally setting my household up to function as a mini community, and I also fit his description of household landlord.

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Last week we gained two new household members. We are now seven people living in a four bedroom house: me, my son, a couple with a child, and a young couple. Four of us have lived at the same community previously, so we have some shared understanding and expectations. It’s working really well. I’m finding it feels more stable with seven rather than five people.

There are four other adults around for babysitting if I want to go out for an evening. We only need to cook dinner one night a week, and wash dishes on another night. Having more people means more hands on deck for large jobs, like pulling all the stored building materials out and restacking them. It also means a more diverse skill set. I can’t play guitar, ride a skateboard, prune bonsai or do hula hoop tricks, but my housies can.

Some of the things we’re doing to function as a cohesive community are: designation of private (bedrooms) and common (other rooms) spaces, fortnightly household meetings, and a dinner roster. I painted my household principles onto a little canvas. Currently, I’m the only working adult. Some of the other adults are contributing time rather than rent money. It’s been working well to write out a list of jobs for the day. I feel so relieved to get home after juggling work and parenting, and find that things have moved along without my effort. It also helps the person doing the jobs feel more confident and proud to have contributed to tangible projects rather than feeling helpless and jobless.

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We’re currently evolving a system for grocery shopping where we each contribute $40 ($20 for kids) weekly into a jar, and anyone can go shopping for the household. We adapted a pantry list that I used previously to list all the basics food items that we need to keep in stock. It’s been laminated and stuck on the pantry door, so whenever we run out of something we’ll put a mark against it. There’s a section for extra requests, too. Then the shopper can just skim the list, note down everything that needs restocking, take the cash and go shopping.

After discussing which items should be on the staples list, during which I vetoed a couple of things, one of the household adults suggested that we could do a shopping induction. All of us will go to our local shops together one time and negotiate how to read labels, where to find certain ingredients, what to avoid, how to buy it with the least plastic, etc. I think it would also be a good idea to have a movie night with a food documentary, so everyone has some shared understanding of the background ethics of food. I also explained that my priorities for food procurement are: backyard, then local barter/roadside stalls/markets, then organic food, then conventional produce.

This will take extra effort, but it meets my need for mutuality and making a difference. I’m eager to share what I’ve learnt about ethics and the environment, when the other person is ready to listen. When I feel twitchy about household members using lots of plastic, eating sugar or buying GM foods, I calm myself by using it as practice in acceptance. What I’m finding is that when I meet them where they’re at, they are able to keep their guards down and be more open to learning and behaviour change. If my goal was to have a plastic-free house right now, I’d be pulling my hair out! If my goal is to create positive change in the world, then I’m on the right track.

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There are unexpected benefits to living in community, too. I’m learning a lot about my son by seeing him through the eyes of other men. It gives me a perspective into the way his brain works that I otherwise really struggle to make sense of. And I’m learning about myself by noticing what rubs me the wrong way, when my boundaries are crossed, where my line of resentment lies. Each conflict is a chance to practice my Non Violent Communication (NVC). It’s a gift.

Combined with the Couchsurfers that we still host (now actually on the couch, or in their vans in the backyard, rather than the spare room), it can make for a busy house. Yet there’s an efficiency of scale in sharing this space and these resources. We collectively take up far less space than three households. The rent money boosts my mortgage payments, and the jobs contributed boost my self-sufficiency journey. My way of living demonstrates practical skills (all my housemates are enjoying learning how to bake sourdough) as well as introducing more radical ideas like gift economies, dumpster diving and NVC. And when we need personal space, we have bedrooms to retreat to without it being an anti-social vibe. I’m actually surprised at how often I find myself alone in my house. I don’t miss it. And I like my space, and control over my space.

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So it’s interesting to find my household described in RetroSuburbia, when it feels like an atypical set-up. Most people I talk to about housemates and Couchsurfers say ‘great idea, but I couldn’t do it’. In the past, I too couldn’t imagine letting people outside my family unit ‘intrude’ into the sanctuary of my home. The journey of moving to a community softened me in a gentle and powerful way. I’m enjoying drawing on aspects of that again. I like that there are more options than we think. I like that we can soften and lean into the tight parts of ourselves, the places that we think we are stuck – money, relationships – and discover more depth. I like looking at my household as an experiment – let’s just try this and see how it goes. You’ll find endless experiments beckoning in RetroSuburbia. Are you ready to play?

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  • I think it’s ideal but as you know we mainly host Couchsurfers, on the couch. We have hosted paying students before for short periods.

    I do think it becomes more complicated when you have a tiny home like mine and five people living in it but I admire the idea and personally would love the dynamics. Unfortunately my family does not feel the same.

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