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.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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