RVing public has a PR problem

I’ve written in the past about the “gasoline gypsies” label that was hung on RVers, back in the 1930s, by a public wary of transients. That may have ebbed, as RVing became identified mostly as the idiosyncratic lifestyle of a bunch of old codgers spending their grandkids’ inheritances, but the recent explosion in RV sales across all age groups–and most notably to those same grandkids, now young adults–has been matched by a resurgence in fear and loathing of travelers and itinerants.

This deep prejudice is nowhere as evident as when a new RV park or campground is being proposed, or an established property is seeking permission for significant expansion. The usual concerns about any large development, be it commercial or residential, are predictable: traffic, noise, over-burdened municipal services, inappropriate use for the area, etc. But only campgrounds–unlike hotels or motels–seem to evoke a particular unease that goes beyond mere numbers.

When a new RV campground was recently proposed in Hinton, Mass., much of the public opposition focused on the transient nature of its prospective clientele. The town’s infrastructure is inadequate for “transient visitors who have no financial, moral or ethical ties to the community,” a local couple complained in a letter to planning officials. Another town resident, expressing her anxiety about an “invasion” of visitors, added: “The reality is, there’s no way to know who breezes into town and for what purpose. There is no accountability to the people who have worked hard to live here and live by the rules.”

The Hinton proposal was made by Northgate Resort Ventures, whose amenities and prices attract a higher-end demographic. Imagine, then, the paranoia that gets stirred up by a bare-bones proposal like the one in Larimer County, Colorado, where the owners of a 320-acre site want to put in 373 RV sites in the cheapest possible way, with gravel roads, porta-johns and no amenities beyond an “events building” several years hence. More than a thousand letters of protest have already been filed with county officials, at the earliest stage of a lengthy permitting process, and sprinkled throughout them is that same unremitting fear of the itinerant stranger.

“A temporary traveler will not have the same investment in the neighborhood as a long-term resident, which could result in an increase of crime,” one local couple wrote. They were echoed by many others: “A campground in an area of this size may also lead to an increase in crime and trespassing.” “The guests that will be coming and going from the over 370 camping sites have no ties to the community and no sense of pride.” “I am aware that sex offenders are often registered to the addresses of campgrounds, and that the transient nature of the occupants can provide a haven for other criminal elements.”

As fantastical as all that may sound, it also has more than a grain of truth–as underscored by local residents with RVing experience. “There is no doubt that this will attract at the very least transient individuals who are not vested in our rural neighborhood, and at the worst trespassing, drugs and stealing,” warned Tami Root, a former park ranger, who said that this kind of behavior had been “a consistent challenge” at the state park where she had worked.

Added local resident Kevin Blough: “As a family, we are avid campers who have camped almost every weekend for over 20 years during the summer months. During this time, we have experienced fellow campers who are conscientious and leave the area as it was when they arrived, however, more often than not this is not the case. Because the campsite and surrounding areas are not their personal property, campers often let their trash blow around, allow their animals to wander, use areas other than designated restrooms to relieve themselves, stay up all night, etc.”

Thus far, none of the major players in the RV sector–RV manufacturers, campground associations, RV media–have given any indication that they even see a problem, much less that they’re trying to deal with it. When they finally do catch on, they’ll be looking at a PR nightmare that will be so much worse for being so long ignored.

Housing squeeze makes RVs a default

The development struggle that’s been going on in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, for much of the past year is symptomatic of a growing problem around the country, as developers rush in to capitalize on the renewed interest in RVs and RV campgrounds. As with any boom investment, the financial shock waves thrown off by big money frequently buffet little people who have no skin in the game and are simply trying to get by–and when it’s their housing that’s at stake, the end result is immiseration.

In Maggie Valley, the conflict began when a Myrtle Beach-based developer unveiled a $200 million (!) plan to revive a defunct theme park, which many locals remember fondly from the latter half of the last century. But bringing Ghost Town in the Sky back to life requires a lot more juice than it once did, the developer explained; it requires a whole lot of ancillary development, from new restaurants to a hotel to a health clinic. It also will require finding at least 200 new workers in an area that doesn’t currently have them, and new housing for all those workers, because the area doesn’t have enough of that, either. That’s why reviving the theme park also means building additional RV campgrounds, he told the town, because that’s the cheapest and most flexible housing solution–even though the town has precious little flat land and at least a dozen existing campgrounds already serving the tourist trade.

The campground “solution” raises several issues, not least among them the suitability of RVs for long-term housing. But here’s an even more fundamental question: why isn’t there enough housing in Maggie Valley for the people who work there? And the answer, as just about all resort towns already know, is that real estate prices have gone through the roof. In Maggie Valley, located in Haywood County, home prices have jumped 33.7% in just the past year and 73.3% over the past five years, to an average of $338,316. Meanwhile, the average monthly income in Haywood County was just $2,454 in 2020, putting affordable housing out of reach of the people working in the tourist industry that is supposed to inject the town with economic vitality.

Ironically, while some of that upward pressure on prices is due to inadequate new construction, a significant part of it is the result of the pandemic-fueled return to the outdoors that developers are now trying to exploit. As local observers have noted, new visitors arrive, they fall in love with the mountain scenery and they decide to stay–sort of–by buying a vacation home. Sometimes two. That’s nice for them, providing a refuge from whatever claustrophobic cities they call home, but while their surplus homes sit empty most of the time, local workers more rooted to the area can’t find an affordable place to live.

This is not a problem peculiar to Maggie Valley, of course, although it may be more pronounced in mountain communities because of their additional topographic constraints on new home construction. Local news reported last summer that many workers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were living out of their cars in Bridger-Teton National Forest because there was no housing to be had. In the Idaho panhandle this past week, the Shoshone Board of County Commissioners heard numerous objections to a proposed RV park, including the fear that it would essentially become a magnet for “trailer trash.” As one local resident pointed out, a plummeting availability of rental properties is forcing area workers to turn to short-term rentals and RVs for their housing needs, with RV campgrounds at risk of becoming the next generation of trailer courts.

Indeed, short-term rentals are the other main driver of housing scarcity: real estate investors have concluded that the higher rates they can charge for short stays more than compensate for their higher risk compared to long-term rentals, and so have been snapping up houses and apartments that would otherwise be rented by working people. The short-term rental sector is so lucrative that newcomers like reAlpha–trolling for new investors with as little as $1,000 to buy in–dangle an irresistible set of numbers: Zillow’s estimate that long-term rentals are currently pulling in an average of $1,495 a month, vs. Airbnb estimates of $3,256 a month for short-term stays. “There’s a reason billionaires invest 20-40% of their wealth in real estate,” reAlpha croons.

Given those pressures, it’s little wonder that many RV campgrounds increasingly are headed in the direction of being dumping grounds for people with nowhere else to go. RVs are hardly designed for year-round living, and unlike regular housing they depreciate over time, so their owners never build up the equity that would allow them to escape their trap. But they are a step above living out of a car in a national forest–and they do enable developers with deep pockets and large ambitions to keep on getting bigger.

The RV park bubble is growing

If the pandemic has been bad news for many businesses, just the reverse has been true for RV campground valuations, with prices ratcheting steadily upward. But as is becoming increasingly clear, the buying frenzy is creating a real estate bubble of asking prices that aren’t supported by economic fundamentals.

Take, for example, the Tennessee RV and motorhome campground that just got listed for sale, scarcely more than two years after the current owners acquired it. The 8.1-acre Tiny Town RV and Motorhome Park has 54 RV sites, plus sites for 10 single-wides and one double-wide, and accepts only monthly rentals. That means it also has minimal amenities, but the park does include a 3,600-square-foot house, a laundry facility with bathroom and connected maintenance area, and a zero-turn mower and diesel tractor.

Asking price? $3.4 million.

Sound pricey? Indeed it does, and a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation demonstrates how much so. The campground’s current rates include $550 a month for 26 RV sites at the front of the park (where there’s more road noise) and $575 a month for 28 sites in the rear. The single-wides, whose occupants pay their own utilities, are charged $250 a month; the solitary double-wide pays $320 a month. Assuming 100% occupancy year-round–which isn’t really a thing–that works out to a maximum of $398,640 a year in revenue. In other words, the aspiring sellers want someone to pay them 8.5 times their maximum annual cash flow.

How crazy is that? Let’s assume a buyer comes in with a typical 30% down-payment, or a smidge over a million dollars. Further assuming that the balance of $2.38 million is financed over 25 years at 6%, that means a monthly mortgage payment of $13,913, or $184,008 a year, leaving $214,632 a year to cover utilities, insurance, taxes, payroll (assuming the new owner can’t do all the needed work), maintenance and upkeep. If operating expenses can be kept to 40% of annual revenues, or $159,456–a highly optimistic assumption–the buyer will be left with annual income of $55,176 plus a home. At a more realistic 50% of revenues, or $199,320 in operating expenses, that drops to just $15,312 a year for the owner to live on.

Is it possible? Yes–if everything meets best-scenario expectations, nothing goes awry and there’s no expectation that the park will ever need capital improvements . Keep in mind, though, that buying an annual income of no more than $55,000 will cost the new owners a million bucks that they could have invested a lot more profitably elsewhere, and without years of hard work ahead of them. The more likely outcome is that if this property sells at anywhere near its asking price, it’ll be because the buyer is planning a sharp increase in site rates.

It might be time, in other words, for the park’s residents to start thinking about their next home.

Boondock–or boondoggle?

Back in the day, when my legs had considerably more spring in them and I could backpack all day long, I would head into the backcountry for a week or 10 days or–on one memorable expedition–two weeks at a time, carrying everything I needed on my back. It was a point of pride for me not to have to resupply, so the 45-55 pounds I allowed myself had to include not just my tent, sleeping bag and cooking stove, but all my food and stove fuel and sufficient clothing for any weather I might encounter. The only thing for which I had to turn to my environment was for water, and in those days, drought was less of a limiting factor.

The attraction of all that hardship, which I could never adequately explain to my non-hiking co-workers, was the solitude and self-sufficiency I could carve out for myself. I could go days without seeing another soul–or if I did, odds were it was someone just as willing as I to pass by with a quick smile and brief nod of recognition. Or to stop for a 15-minute chat about the weather or the country ahead. I could hike north or south as the mood suited me, spend hours just lazing beside a stream or put in a body-testing 20-mile day, stretch out at night to look at a star-studded sky or roll over to make the day’s journal entry.

I tried to pass through the high country without leaving a mark because I wanted to leave the land as beautiful and restorative as I had found it, but also because doing so fit my sense of what it meant to be self-sufficient. To me, it meant that no one else would have to repair or clean-up after me. It meant not taking that which could not be replaced. It meant being non-intrusive, in order to preserve that sense of solitude for which I had gone searching.

Yet even on those remote pilgrimages I would encounter disturbing signs that not everyone felt the same way. Fire pits that hadn’t been dispersed, rocks blackened and cracked from the heat. Slash marks and cuts on trees, frequently live ones, where someone had swung a hatchet for tinder or firewood. Most disturbing of all were the piles of human feces just lying in the open, often still festooned with toilet paper, with no effort made to bury this most arrogant display of human hubris. Or maybe it was just heedlessness.

I think about these things when I read or hear about RVers promoting boondocking as a way to get away from too many other RVers, from over-crowded campgrounds and from the high (and rising!) cost of finding a spot with a power pedestal and hydrant. There’s a lot of emphasis on self-sufficiency and how to make resources last, from gas generators and solar panels for electricity to capturing grey water for toilet flushing to various tricks for staying cool in the heat and warm when it’s cold. Sometimes, at the extremes, all the chatter takes on a somewhat paranoid survivalist sheen that makes me wonder about other people’s fantasy lives.

The uncomfortable fact is that some boondockers will be like the solitary hikers I would sometimes encounter with a nod and a smile, but too many others will be of the poop-on-the-side-of-the-trail variety. They’ll leave ruts across fragile or muddy soils, shatter the night stillness with their electric generators, dump their grey water (hopefully not the black!) wherever it suits them because, well, they’re out in “nature.” They’ll leave fire-scarred rocks and half-burnt stumps, demolished vegetation and food litter, like orange peels and egg shells, because that too is “natural” or “organic.”

The facts also are that even the most conscientious boondockers will be unable to avoid scarring the land on which they’re camping. Not when they’re driving 5,000- to 25,000-pound wheeled houses onto unpaved and uncleared ground, squatting in one place for five or seven days–if not longer–until they’re forced to move on in search of fresh water or a dump station. And while it may seem like there’s an awful lot of land out there for the boondockers to settle on, and so whatever damage they may inflict will be dispersed and only minimally visible, in reality the boondocker population is exploding and the land they’re seeking is much more limited than they imagine.

It’s hard for many people to accept the fact that we humans, small and insignificant as we are, could possibly have so great an effect on this seemingly limitless planet as to cause global warming of catastrophic dimensions. So, too, will it be difficult for many boondockers to accept that their attempt at self-sufficiency will likewise destroy the very environment they’ve sought out, one rut and one splintered tree at a time.

Col. fire should be a wake-up call

Nearly a thousand Colorado homes just burned to the ground, not in a California urban-woodland interface but in an area far more typical of suburbs anywhere in the United States. That causes a problem for climate-change deniers, for whom it’s an article of faith that California’s devastating forest fires have nothing to do with extreme weather and are simply the result of poor forestry management. If only the state did a better job of thinning out its underbrush, they argue, those fires wouldn’t have occurred, or at least would not have been as extensive.

But what do you say about a wildfire that had nothing to do with poor forestry management because no forests were involved? A wildfire that occurred in December, far outside the “normal” fire season?

Unfortunately, where there’s a will there’s a way–and the will among this group is to deny any facts that would require, if actually confronted, some changes. Perhaps some personal inconvenience. Maybe even some expense, to finally pay for what the economists call “negative externalities,” like pollution and resource consumption. Because when you get right to it, what much of the climate-denying comes down to is, “I’m going to do what I want and no one is going to tell me otherwise, because I know what’s best for me.” Note that this stance makes no mention of you or the next generation.

A recent case in point is California’s recently passed legislation to ban the sale by 2024 of small, off-road gasoline engines, such as those found in lawn mowers, pressure washers and leaf blowers. The ban would then be extended to portable generators by 2028, as the latest step in the state’s aggressive effort to transition toward a carbon-free economy–carbon, as most people understand, being the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases and global warming. And small engines, it turns out, are enormously more polluting than car engines, which have become much more efficient (and therefore less polluting) after years of tightened emission standards.

How polluting? The California Air Resources Board calculated that operating a typical gas-powered lawn mower for an hour emits as much pollution as driving a car from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Operating a backpack leaf blower for an hour emits pollution comparable to driving that same car from Los Angeles to Denver. In recent years, total particulate emissions from small engines began to exceed that of all of the state’s passenger cars.

Many RVers, however, understood only that their ox was being gored because of the coming ban on portable generators. When RVtravel.com ran a story about the legislation it got almost half-a-million hits, or ten times the readership of its usual most-read stories. The comments that flowed were so vituperative and obscene that the site’s moderators called it quits after cleaning up the language in more than 200 responses, announcing, “Comments are closed. Too many of you are just bashing each other. Take it elsewhere, please.”

Wading through the emotional maelstrom in an effort to understand its underlying logic is to scrape at a collective id of mewling self-entitlement. “I pay for the national parks in California and they are trying to restrict my personal use of them,” complained one reader, saying he wanted to find a lawyer to file “a federal suite [sic] against California on a pro bono basis,” which is nonsensical on its face. “The environmental nuts are going to cost us huge amounts of money, ruin our lifestyles and livelihoods with this totally unnecessary push to go green,” added another, who went on to claim that his air in Phoenix is just fine without such measures, thank you very much. Anyone who has been in that city during a temperature inversion knows better.

And then there was the curiously paradoxical response from a woman who wrote: “The elected officials in California couldn’t care less what the general public says.” Pause to absorb that, then: “Most of the people who live there voted for this crap, so they aren’t going to want any change.” And then, just for good measure: “Climate change is another scam, like the covids.”

There’s a lot more like that, and not much sense in pawing at it except to note that these kinds of non-factual temper tantrums make the difficult job of responding to climate change even more fraught. It’s all about the carbon, and keeping as much of it out of the atmosphere as possible, and yes, that’s going to require lifestyle changes–which, for a certain segment of the population, amounts to a transgression of personal sovereignty. It’s too bad that a disproportionate segment of the RVing public seems to come from that mind-set, because ultimately their self-serving ignorance could tarnish all RVers.

Next post: the inherent contradiction in boondocking

RVs as homes of last resort

I was a reporter in Phoenix, several decades ago (!), when I first heard the term “SRO” while interviewing an anthropologist-turned-housing-advocate about the city’s sharply increasing homeless population. The growing number of people living on the streets, she said, was a direct result of the demise of Single Room Occupancy facilities–sometimes boarding houses, but more often aging hotels that had been converted into bare-bones living quarters at affordable rents. Now, she said, those faded properties were being bulldozed out of existence in response to the city’s exploding real estate market. Those who ended up being evicted? Collateral damage.

Phoenix was hardly unique. The U.S. once had enough SROs to house millions, but by the mid-twentieth century these cheap living quarters had become increasingly targeted by developers, by more stringent fire and building codes and by the moral rectitude of those living in more comfortable circumstances. Between 1955 and 2013, nearly one million SROs in the country were done in by regulation, demolition or conversion to condos. In Chicago, 81% of all SROs disappeared between 1960 and 1980. San Francisco, which today has one of the most expensive real estate markets in the U.S. coupled with one of its highest homeless populations, lost approximately 15,000 SROs between 1970 and 2000.

As SROs declined, however, an alternative form of cheap housing was on the rise, as mobile home parks swiftly became home to millions of mostly lower-income people. Tucked out of sight in the countryside or within industrial areas, such “parks” had the advantage of keeping the underclass out of the urban centers that had been home to SRO occupants. By 2001, more than 7 million mobile homes dotted the American countryside, with more than a third of them concentrated in mobile home parks–until the same forces that whittled away the SROs started working on them, as well. Earlier this month, Forbes magazine commented on how the number of mobile home parks has been “drastically reduced” each passing year, albeit without providing any hard numbers.

Rising real estate values are partly behind that reduction: many trailer parks that once were on the margins of metropolitan areas have become engulfed by urban sprawl, making the land more valuable for other uses. But there’s also the “loss-leader” problem for municipalities, as mobile home parks typically pay much less in local taxes than they soak up in public resources, particularly for local schools. And underlying all the financial dynamics is the whole class issue: with SROs, it was their depiction as “welfare hotels”–even though residents were predominantly unsubsidized. With mobile home parks, it’s the “trailer trash” perception. There is, unfortunately, little tolerance in a society that measures value in dollars for those who don’t have many.

The bad news today, as we head into a year in which remaining pandemic-driven moratoria on evictions are about to expire, is that the number of housing refugees–the people once most likely to need SROs or trailer parks–is about to soar. Meanwhile, low-rent housing–defined as $800 a month or less–declined by 4 million units between 2011 and 2017 and is in chronic short-supply. More than 20 million renters are paying more than 30% of their income for housing, and half of those are paying more than half–a level housing experts call “severely burdened.” Many of those people will soon find themselves on the streets.

What’s all that have to do with RVing and the splendid pursuit of camping in the great outdoors? Nothing, unless one realizes that “camping” isn’t only recreational–that it also defines one extreme of a housing continuum that stretches from gated communities at one end to improvised tents on the sidewalk on the other. And with SROs and mobile home parks increasingly squeezed at the bottom end of the spectrum, the dwindling number of cheap alternatives is making RVs look ever more attractive–for all their shortcomings as long-term housing–to people without other options.

What will be the social consequences? I’ll predict more friction within the RVing community itself, as those who spend big bucks for big fancy rigs used primarily for vacationing start bitching about the low-lifes in the battered travel trailer or class C next door. Look for more and more RV encampments to spring up next to tenting communities on city streets, parks and abandoned strip malls. And expect rising tensions between those who already own homes and those who want to build or expand existing campgrounds that will bring in more of the new transient class, regardless of how much money some of them might have.

What’s in a name?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Taking a leaf from Lewis G. Carroll, some campground operators unhappy with local efforts to rein them in are putting a new spin on such commonly understood words as “campground” and “summer camp.” The result is a topsy-turvy world of strained logic and semantic inversions that strain credulity, presented with utter seriousness because of the serious money at stake.

In Tremont, Maine, Pointy Head (yes, really!) Campground early this year responded to three violations for operating illegally by applying for a proper town permit. The site plan it submitted showed three existing cabins, 12 tent sites and two service buildings with showers and bathrooms, but the application was so deficient that its owners were told to come back with more information. Before that process could unwind, however, town residents–reacting to an unrelated attempt to build a different campground–voted in November for a 180-day moratorium on all campground applications, with an option to renew the pause in six-month increments.

That might appear to have ended the whole Pointy Head exercise–until the non-permitted campground, demonstrating the Dickensian aptness of its name, submitted a new application. This time Pointy Head wants to have 15 cabins on the property. The campground moratorium is irrelevant, the applicant’s lawyer told the Tremont planning board on Dec. 14, because the new application seeks to replace tent sites with cabins–and without tent sites there is no campground. Forget the application it filed earlier this year. This is a whole new deal–nothing to see here!

“We didn’t care what we were called two years ago, or even six months ago, when we were last in front of you in April,” Humpty Dumpty told the board. “We never were a campground.”

Well, not legally, perhaps.

In the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, meanwhile, Northgate Resort Ventures is seeking to buy a 170-acre property in the town of Hinsdale, presumably to add to its chain of Jellystone campgrounds. If successful, it would put in 317 RV sites where there are none today, including 100 park models, plus a cafeteria, a general store and a 35,000-square-foot water park, euphemistically called a “splash pad.” And it would operate for nearly seven months a year, late April through October.

Camp Emerson, the property Northgate wants to acquire, has been a summer camp for more than half a century. Some 250 campers, ages 7 to 15, live in its two-dozen wooden cabins between mid-June and early August, doing the kinds of things that summer campers have always done: water sports, archery, woodworking, outdoor games. They do this in an area zoned R-5, which is reserved for agricultural and low-density housing, but which allows for a handful of special exceptions–exceptions that include summer camps, but most emphatically do not include RV campgrounds.

A non-starter for Northgate? Nah. Allowing RVs on the property simply “continues the land’s use for camping,” the company argued before the Hinton zoning board of appeals earlier this month. Indeed, its application for a special permit seeks “to operate a Commercial Summer Camp (a.k.a. ‘campground’).” Summer camp, campground–both include the word “camp,” so how much difference can there be?

Both vocabulary exercises are to be taken back up by their respective planning officials in January. We’ll learn then, in Humpty Dumpty’s terms, who has better mastered the language.

Just lookin’ for a home . . .

While most people, I suspect, still view RVs as–well, as recreational vehicles–the truth is that a growing proportion of all that rolling stock is being used for permanent housing. Sometimes that’s because RVs are mobile and their owners are seeking a gypsy lifestyle. More and more often, however, it’s because they’re relatively cheap and therefore available as default housing for people one step from homelessness.

One set of clues about this development comes from U.S. census data, another from manufacturing statistics from both the RV and manufactured housing industry associations. What the latter show is that for decades after World War II, low-cost housing in the form of mobile homes was cranked out by the tens of thousands, eventually peaking at nearly 580,000 built in 1973 alone. The average cost for a new house trailer that year was under $9,000–compared with an average $32,500 for a site-built home. No wonder, then, that by 2001 slightly more than 7 million house trailers dotted the American landscape, with roughly one-third of them concentrated in mobile home parks.

But by then, the leading role of house trailers as the cheapest form of housing was already being eclipsed by the RV sector: in 2,000, for the first time in U.S. history, RV production exceeded that of mobile homes, 300,100 to 250,400. And while RVs come in various shapes and sizes and even today are bought more often for recreational purposes than for residential ones, the production gap grew wider every year thereafter. By 2020, only 94,400 house trailers rolled off the production line, compared to 430,400 RVs. This year, more than 600,000 RVs will be produced, and even more are projected for 2022.

With RVs priced, on average, slightly more than half of what it costs to buy an average mobile home–$42,617 vs. $78,500 in 2020–and only a fraction of the median U.S. home price of $374,000, it’s easy to see why people with little money might start looking to RVs as housing alternatives. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau, observing a slow but steady decline in mobile homes in its biennial housing surveys, in 2015 made up much of the difference by adding a new housing category labeled simply “other,” defined as “boat, RV, van, etc.” “Other” clocked in at 69,000 in 2015, 75,000 in 2017 and 96,000 in 2019. The 2021 numbers should be out soon, and undoubtedly will notch another increase.

None of this is definitive–yet–but does strongly suggest that more people are turning to RVs for affordable housing. That, in turn, means more demand for RV spaces in campgrounds, as well as on the streets for people who can’t afford campground fees.

There’s one more data point that’s relevant: the growing number of “tiny homes,” which unlike RVs are intended as full-time residences but which usually don’t meet zoning and other requirements for conventional year-round housing. Half beast, half fowl, they often cruise the countryside on their wheeled chassis in a frustrating search for a roosting place. This week the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. came to their rescue, issuing a nationwide list of “over 250 places to park your tiny house”–the great majority of them, it turns out, being RV campgrounds.

Return of the “gasoline gypsies?”

As the number of RVs rolling off assembly lines continues to soar, the investment class has astutely noted that there’s money to be made by throwing up more RV parks and campgrounds. At the same time, a growing number of established homeowners and businesses–and the politicians representing them–are awakening to this incursion on their turf, and they’re not happy. Moreover, public perception of RVers in general is being shaped by the growing number of otherwise homeless people squatting on city streets in aging, often barely operable travel trailers, motorhomes and vans.

Many of the concerns voiced when a developer wants to build a new or expanded campground arise whenever any sizeable development is proposed, from increased noise and traffic to greater demand on municipal services. But additional resistance arises when a project specifically targets a transient population, which often is regarded suspiciously by “the locals.” Because they’re just passing through, travelers can be seen as untrustworthy, inclined to take advantage and heedless of any negative impact they may have on the environment or on their more established neighbors.

RVers, in other words, are the contemporary American version of “gypsies,” the derogatory term applied by many Europeans to the nomadic Roma people. This is not a new concept. A century ago, when the price of travel trailers first became low enough to be afforded by the middle–and lower–classes, the New Republic referred to this emerging subculture as “gasoline gypsies.” And while the gasoline gypsies initially were regarded with a somewhat bemused interest, the onset of the Great Depression and its dispossession of many people from “regular” housing soon changed that.

By 1938, the American Automobile Association estimated there were 300,000 travel trailers in the U.S., and that 10% of them were being used for full-time housing. All those RV full-timers alarmed the more established population then, as they do now. As Esther Sullivan, author of “Manufactured Insecurity,” has written, many towns and cities throughout the country passed exclusionary zoning and ordinances prohibiting the use of trailers as housing, banishing them from the city limits or to commercial trailer courts, or requiring occupied trailers to be moved every few days. Sound familiar?

It’s important to note that the “travel trailers” of the 1920s and 1930s were essentially the same size–up to 8 feet wide–as today’s models. The larger units that now populate commercial trailer courts, with single-wides ranging up to 14 feet wide, weren’t manufactured until after 1955, when changing state and federal regulations permitted the transition from “trailers” to “mobile homes.”

But while mobile homes are now recognized as just permanent housing, today’s RVs straddle two worlds, the recreational and the residential–the same split personality that was observed, and increasingly resented, a century ago. Today’s events are following a similar arc, with manufacturers and affluent buyers attempting to downplay the growing use of today’s RVs as replacement housing for the tens of thousands of Americans squeezed out of the conventional housing market. Some of the dispossessed, as mentioned, are ending up parked on the street. Others are being shoe-horned into smaller commercial RV parks by campground owners who recognize there’s less work, and steadier cash flow, in having their sites filled with permanent rather than transient campers.

That leaves anyone trying to build or expand an RV park in the unenviable position of recognizing market demand but facing ever stronger headwinds of public opposition. History is repeating–but at an unbelievable scale. Those 300,000 travel trailers that prompted such a public backlash in 1938? The U.S. will produce twice that many RVs this year alone, while the number of RVers living in their rigs full-time is estimated as upwards of 1 million, or several orders of magnitude more than shook things up all those many years ago.

They’re coming out of the woodwork

The institutional money investors are falling all over themselves in their rush to jump into the RV park and campground business. Some, apparently, need to do their homework better.

We (my wife and I) recently received a letter from Sam Salamone of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, expressing his desire to buy our campground. The letter acknowledged that we probably “get a fair amount of ‘spam’ letters from other people,” which is why Sam “took the time to hand address and sign this letter personally.” He then went on to assure us that “I’ve actually taken the time to research your park and area already,” and that he is “certain that we can offer you a fair price, with the cleanest terms, and schedule the closing according to your needs.” Since we closed on the sale of our campground just about seven months ago, that seems unlikely.

The letter did, however, close with three (!) requests that I call Sam when I “get the chance,” so in a spirit of RV park collegiality I did. Twice. Each time my call went to voice mail, and each time it did not get returned.

While awaiting the return call that never came, I “actually” took the time to research Sam. There isn’t much to find. Sam is the owner of The Salamone Group, LLC, which has been around all of five months and so doesn’t have much to say for itself. He also is head of the “acquisitions department” of Millennium Assets Group, also of Mt. Juliet, which is one of those vaguely cutting-edge names loaded with undefined promise–not to be confused with the multi-billion-dollar Millennium Management hedge fund, or the (misspelled) Millenium Asset Group of Denver. Unfortunately, Sam Salamone’s lack of attention to detail extends to his own name, which apparently he has not noticed is misspelled as Salmone on the group’s web site.

(Then again, the site also describes the “Trasaction Size” of its deals in headline type on its home page, so it’s probably not fair to single out Sam from the rest of the brain trust.)

While Millennium Assets Group presents itself as focused on apartment and mobile home park acquisitions, RV parks seem to be an afterthought ginned up by the recent explosion in campground sales–but only if they can be run more like trailer courts. Sam’s letter disclosed that he had “just closed” on a park in Alabama and was preparing to close on a second, in Tennessee. The Alabama acquisition, however, is little more than a glorified parking lot and is not accepting short-term stays.

No telling yet how the Tennessee campground will be run, but it seems reasonable to expect more of the same.

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