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.

Minefields of self-publishing

Although I’ve been a writer for decades, Renting Dirt is my first foray as an “author”–that is, someone who writes and publishes a book. So with that personal history, I found the writing part familiar enough; it was the publishing and distribution end of things that’s been an eye-opener.

Because Renting Dirt explores a niche subject of limited interest, with a primary target audience of campground owners (and RVers, to some extent), I knew I’d have a hard time interesting a publisher in a book that might sell just a few hundred copies. Fortunately, we live in an age when there are technologically-enabled alternatives to the old-school paradigm of finding an agent, generating extensive book proposals and selling an inherently conservative industry on something as idiosyncratic as a book about–well, about renting dirt. Unfortunately, embracing those alternatives means learning numerous new skills that take time and money and have nothing to do with writing–that, or hiring from the vast number of third-party providers willing to provide the missing pieces: editing, interior book design, cover book design and artwork, formatting for e-book publication, obtaining ISBN codes, registering copyright and Library of Congress forms, hiring a printer, and on and on.

Figuring I’d just as soon spend my money to hire some pros as spend it on software and instruction to do the job myself, that’s the path I chose initially. It wasn’t long, however, before I reversed course and decided, for better or worse, to tackle it all myself. What pushed me down the DIY path?

After researching various companies that offer fee-based services to help authors self-publish, I finally settled on BookBaby, which was well reviewed, reasonably priced and had a full suite of services from which I could pick and choose. Then I got their terms of service–all 10,000 words of them. And what those words made explicitly clear, contrary to their verbal representations, was that if I paid BookBaby for its services I would be awarding it the exclusive distribution rights to my work–an astonishing grab by a company I was supposedly hiring to work for me, and not the other way around. Specifically, BookBaby stipulates that anyone using their services “appoint[s] us as your exclusive authorized representative for the sale and other distribution” of their work “in any manner, including via ebooks and online or physical distribution.”

There was more. If I decided that I no longer wanted to use BookBaby, I would have to give it written notice–and then wait “4-6 weeks or longer” for my book to be removed “from retail outlets around the world.” Until that had happened, I would be barred from distributing my book in any other way. Moreover, there was additional language that seemed to suggest that BookBaby would retain ownership of any materials I had provided, including my text, artwork and descriptive material. All this was so over-the-top that I emailed BookBaby, asking if I had read its language correctly, and in response was told that its terms of service were based on 70-year-old contract language that I shouldn’t take too seriously. “We do have hundreds, maybe thousands, of authors who publish their ebook with us, and publish the print elsewhere, and vice versa. It is not a problem in the least,” I was assured.

Which, of course, begs the question of why that language is in there in the first place–so it was bye-bye, BookBaby. And given its relatively high marks among its peers, I decided I’d be just as well off steering clear of the entire sector.

The other eye-opener was my belated understanding of why Amazon is kicking the butts of local, independent book sellers.

Once Renting Dirt had been published, I identified three non-chain bookstores in my area that I thought might be willing to carry a local author on consignment. I sent each an emailed query, following up with a second email after 10 days or so when I didn’t get any responses. Bookstore number one finally responded with a two-page agreement I was asked to fill out, to be returned with a $25 “handling fee” and a copy of the book for the owner’s review prior to acceptance. What if the owner decided not to carry the book, I asked–would the “handling fee” be returned, since there would be no handling involved?

No, came the answer. But without the $25, the book would not be screened–meaning, in essence, that the “handling fee” was actually a “reading fee.” As I pointed out to the owner, that turned the whole author-reader dynamic on its head, since authors expect readers to pay for reading their work, not the other way around. That ended that discussion.

Bookstore two didn’t respond to my second email, either, so after several more weeks I wrote a third time, somewhat peevishly inquiring why I wasn’t given the simple courtesy of an acknowledgment of my request, even if it came with a “thanks, but no thanks.” This time the bookstore owner did reply–to note that the “tone” of this last email had convinced her we would not work well together. She was undoubtedly correct.

Bookstore three, meanwhile, was so initially receptive that my heart skipped a beat. Let’s see the book, she said, so I hustled it right over, together with a newly-minted business card, and asked her to get back to me once she’d had a chance to evaluate the book. Weeks passed without a word. I finally sent a third email, asking for an update. That was in mid-November. Still waiting for a response.

Amazon, meanwhile, has sold approximately 500 copies of Renting Dirt, which at least covers my expenses to date. That’s no way to make a living, I know, so it’s a good thing I’m retired. But it has all been an education.

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