RVs: homes hiding in plain sight

Because the West Coast is so often a leader in trends that eventually sweep the nation, one acronym that East Coast dwellers should learn is ADU, for accessory dwelling unit. ADUs can take many forms, such as basement apartments, apartments over a garage or a second, smaller building adjacent to the main dwelling, but in all cases they are part of the same property and cannot be bought or sold separately.

Once more widely popular as housing for extended-family members, or to generate extra rental income, ADUs fell out of favor in the mid-20th century and in many cities would now run afoul of zoning regulations. But as real estate prices have exploded all up and down the West Coast, the idea of maximizing land use and building relatively cheaper housing has become irresistible. As one result, California implemented a slew of new ADU funding and related regulations just a year ago, in hopes of encouraging more such development.

The key word in that description, however, is “relatively.” When the median sales price of a home in Alameda County last year was $1.3 million, or $875,000 in Seattle, an ADU can look like a bargain–even though the cost of one built to code can run as high as $400,000 in the Bay Area and Vancouver, BC. Yet even at a more typical mid-range cost of $80,000 to $150,000, there is nothing inexpensive about this approach, and it hardly looks like a cost-effective housing alternative for the growing army of people living in their cars, vans and battered RVs.

Enter Portland, Oregon, an interesting case study of where the future may lie. As reported a few days ago by freelance writer Thacher Schmid, Portland and Multnomah County have been overrun by illegally parked vehicles serving as homes of last resort. Although the city is the third-highest U.S. metro area for cost of living increases, unlike 45 other cities it has not designated “safe parking” programs for homeless residents, forcing them into a stealthy existence of parking on the sly, under overpasses, in city parks and in industrial zones.

Yet Portland also has had a progressive profile on accepting ADUs, and in recent years had basically ignored a creeping erosion of what’s acceptable as auxiliary housing, notably by vehicles that don’t have a fixed foundation. Kol Peterson, who spearheads a Portland-based organization called Accessory Dwellings, in mid-2020 extensively surveyed the city’s Cully neighborhood and found 65 inhabited mobile dwellings among its 4,685 households, including 36 RVs and 29 tiny homes on wheels. Based on that finding, he projected that Portland as a whole had an estimated 3,273 such illegal dwellings, at a time when the city had only 3,139 legally permitted ADUs.

Less than a year later, at the end of April, 2021, the Portland city council unanimously passed new regulations to allow RVs and tiny homes on wheels to be used as ADUs. That means RVs, which in almost every zoned jurisdiction nationwide can be inhabited legally only in RV and mobile home parks, may become increasingly recognized by other city officials as a viable form of affordable housing–after all, a $20,000 used RV is a whole lot more affordable than just about any ADU that can be built.

Suburban and urban homeowners may not be thrilled at the thought of having someone living in an RV camped out behind a neighbor’s home, but then again, most people who have spent much time in an RV won’t be thrilled at living in one year-round, either–especially if it’s seen a few years and isn’t going anywhere. But until society as a whole come to grips with its burgeoning housing crisis, even this rock-bottom response is better than living in the muck and stench of the illegal encampments that have been springing up in every major city.

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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