Not a Fan of Paying Rent? Live in a State Park for “Free”

published Oct 18, 2023
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A historic colonial structure in Concord, MA on an October day
Credit: Keith J Finks/ Shutterstock

What if you could trade your tiny, expensive apartment for a spacious house on a sprawling property — and you could live there for free? It may sound like a far-fetched fantasy, but this scenario could actually be your reality.

In Maryland, you can live rent-free in a state-owned home for the rest of your life through an initiative called the Maryland Resident Curatorship Program. But there’s a catch (there’s always a catch!): You must be willing to contribute at least $100,000 of your own money, plus plenty of time and energy, toward fixing up the place. And after you’ve poured tons of sweat equity into the property, you have to be OK with the fact that it still belongs to the state, not you.

The program, which first launched in 1982, is run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Nearly 50 of these curatorships are underway at historic properties throughout the state. 

So far, the arrangement has been a win-win for everyone. Taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill for maintaining the state’s historic structures. Curators, meanwhile, get to live on a property that would otherwise likely be outside their budget. On top of that, they often get to live on sprawling properties that are inside of or next to state parks, meaning they have room to plant a garden or raise chickens or, for families, tons of space for their kids to run around.

Although resident curators do have to fork over at least $100,000 toward renovations, they don’t have to pay rent or a mortgage. Depending on how all the numbers shake out, this could be a good deal. But of course, tackling the renovation of a historic home is not for the faint of heart. And $100,000 is no small chunk of change, either.

“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of stress, and it can be dangerous,” Bob Albiol, the curator of a home in Seneca Creek State Park that once belonged to George Washington’s stepdaughter, tells the Baltimore Banner

Maryland’s curatorship program has proven so successful that other states have followed suit, implementing their own versions locally. If you’re interested in exploring this type of setup, consider some of the following rent-free arrangements around the country.

Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation launched its Historic Curatorship Program in 1994. It’s similar to the Maryland program, in that the state gives curators a long-term lease (typically between 25 to 40 years) for a historic property in exchange for rehabilitating, managing, and maintaining it. 

There’s another cool twist: Curators can propose a new way of using the property. They might turn it into artists’ lofts, a cafe, or a wedding venue — or they might open it up to a local nonprofit. For example, the 85-year-old Bascom Lodge at Mount Greylock State Reservation has guest rooms, a bakery, and a restaurant. As you might imagine, this reuse component of the program has the added benefit of transforming the state’s run-down, unused buildings into lively, thriving community spaces.

Delaware

Time and the elements have taken their toll on the more than 200 historic buildings maintained by Delaware State Parks. To keep these properties in tip-top shape, the state invites citizens to fix them up — and save money by not having to pay rent or a mortgage — through its Resident-Institution Curatorship program. 

Three properties are looking for curators right now, including one that was built in the 1720s, well before the American Revolution. Talking about living history!

Virginia

At least two counties in Virginia — Fairfax and Loudoun — run their own curatorship programs. Both programs are open to businesses and nonprofits, as well as individuals. 

In Fairfax County, several properties are available right now, including the Banks House, a 27-room home in Alexandria that once belonged to a pioneering Black businessman named Olander Banks

Loudoun County, meanwhile, only recently started its curatorship program. The first property to be included is the Union Street School, which opened in 1884 and served as a school for Black students for many years. The Loudoun Freedom Center — a nonprofit that preserves African American heritage sites throughout the county — will serve as its resident curator.

New York

It’s no secret that living in New York City is expensive. But if you’re willing to take care of one of the city’s 23 historic homes, then you can live rent-free in the Big Apple courtesy of the Historic House Trust. Your official job title will be “resident caretaker” and, while it may seem glamorous to live in a large mansion, it’s actually a lot of work. You’ll be responsible for shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, getting rid of pests, and dealing with old plumbing, just to name a few duties, according to the New York Times.