Surprisingly, the answer is “yes” in most cities. Most cities have ordinances that prohibit camping within city limits, even on private property.
Is it Illegal to Live in a Tent in Your Backyard?
Cities have enacted laws in recent years to prevent homeless people from living in their towns. To give law enforcement officers support towards this goal, cities have made it illegal for people to live in their cars on city streets, parking lots, and even on private property.
It’s even illegal to tent camp in your own backyard. Even if you own land, with a house on that land, it’s still illegal in most cases to live in a tent in your backyard.
This is because of so many new “Airbnb” style websites that have started up recently allowing land owners to rent space on their property. What cities don’t want are homeowners allowing “tent cities” to crop up and create potential eye sores.
Police are Not Likely to Arrest You However
If you’re just putting up a tent in your backyard so that your kids can camp in the backyard, you’re not going to get busted. However, if you routinely accept money from campers needing a safe place to pitch a tent for the night, then you’ll probably get a knock on your door from the authorities.
Homeowners Associations Don’t Allow Camping Withing Their Jurisdiction
Most HOAs prohibit home owners from pitching tents on their property as permanent domiciles. While it’s generally not a problem if you’re doing it for one night, it will be a problem if your camping in your tent for weeks or months.
It will be a bigger problem if you are renting your backyard to campers. Neighbors don’t want to see routine traffic of tent campers moving in and out of their community. They don’t want to hear noise at night, and are constantly worried about their property value dropping.
What Types of Laws Make it Illegal to Live in a Tent in your Backyard?
Cities generally enact a few types of laws that make it illegal to live in a tent in your backyard…
- Anti-Camping Laws – Most all cities have laws against camping within city limits, with the exception of RV parks and campgrounds.
- Zoning Laws – RV Parks and campgrounds can only exist in specific areas of town where city officials have permitted. If you’re allowing people to camp in your backyard, you’ve effectively violated the zoning laws.
- Sleeping in Vehicles – Many cities are also enacting laws against sleeping in vehicles, which effectively shuts down overnighting in Wal-Marts and Cracker Barrels.
- No Overnight Parking – Cities are also changing permitted parking hours along city streets, usually specifying the hours of 2:00 AM to 5:00 AM as being illegal.
- Housing Laws – There are also laws that define what a domicile is, requiring certain building codes including access to toilets, running water, windows, doors, heating and cooling, etc. Hence, if you’re claiming a tent to be your permanent domicile, you’ve violated these laws.
- Laws Against Off-Grid Living – Many cities, counties, even some states, now require that permanent domiciles be connected to utilities, including electricity, water, gas, and sewer. Again, if you’re claiming your tent as a permanent domicile, you may be violating these laws.
What About Those Tent Cities in Downtown?
Larger cities recognize that they cannot forcibly move someone out of their town just because they’re homeless, poor, mentally disabled, or out of work. So while they have enacted laws against camping within city limits, they selectively enforce these laws. They generally enforce them in residential areas, industrial areas, shopping centers, parks, and tourist areas. But they will designate a specific section of downtown, usually in a blighted area where no one else goes, and tell police not to enforce camping laws there.
Some BLM Land Exists within City Limits
There are small pockets of land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that exist inside city limits. These are usually patches of hill tops, mountain tops, ravines, or excessively boulder-laden pastures, that are impossible for residential or commercial development.
It’s even illegal to tent camp on these patches of BLM land. This is because the BLM is treated like any other land owner. Even though BLM land is owned by the federal government, and technically belongs to the people, it’s still subject to local laws.
See our other article, “BLM Camping for Free” for more specifics on BLM camping.