FEMA didn’t get ARVC’s admonition

The split personality afflicting the RV industry, in which it can’t quite decide whether the wheeled homes it produces are recreational or residential in nature, has been on display again the past couple of weeks. The confusion is all but certain to result in calamity some day.

On the record, at least, the RV Industry Association (RVIA), the RV Dealers Association (RVDA) and the National Association of of RV Parks and Campgrounds(ARVC) all agree that the fifth-wheels and travel trailers that serve as vacation homes for millions of Americans are not meant for permanent, or even long-term, residency. Ditto for RV park models, which look every bit as sturdy and livable as their close cousins, the single-wide mobile homes beside which they are sometimes parked.

The distinction isn’t merely semantic. As I’ve written before, RVs are legally viewed as vehicles and are built to different codes than house trailers, which are defined as housing and therefore subject to more rigorous construction standards. The only notable distinction between the two is that as long as a house on wheels has less than 400 square feet under its roof—excluding lofts and outside porches—it only has to conform to the voluntary consensus standards set by the American National Standards Institute; more than 400 square feet and it has to meet more stringent Housing and Urban Development regulations.

The RV industry likes things this way because it means lower costs and less meddlesome interference from government regulators, which is understandable from a libertarian perspective—even if it does result in correspondingly shoddier and even life-threatening construction. As reported by the Indianapolis Star a month ago, in a devastating series that the RV industry has resolutely ignored, RV assembly workers don’t even need a license or certification to do electrical work, a level of lax oversight that HUD would never tolerate.

What brings this to mind is a general session at last week’s ARVC convention under the self-congratulatory title, “How National ARVC’s Advocacy Works for You.” Among the panelists was Wade Elliott, who has worked tirelessly over the years to raise electrical standards for campgrounds that in many cases were a do-it-yourselfer’s nightmare of undersized wiring, reversed grounds and shoddy work-arounds. Yet even Elliott demonstrated that he’s bought the myth that there’s a bright line between recreational vehicles and residential ones. Asked by an audience member why RVs shouldn’t be required to meet housing electrical standards, since there are so many people living in RVs, his answer was a short, “Well, they shouldn’t be living in them!”

Maybe not—there are a lot of “shouldn’ts,” including the necessary observation that people shouldn’t be living on sidewalks, either. But that’s the world we live in, and it’s naive at best and immeasurably cruel at worst to pretend otherwise.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that the federal government is no less fuzzy on the question of whether RVs are suitable as living quarters. Without any apparent recognition of the irony involved, RVIA issued a press release yesterday under the headline, “FEMA to Release Accessible Emergency Housing Proposal Request to RV Manufacturers.” As further detailed in the release, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to ensure access to a supply of RVs that are ADA compliant, with counter-top heights, thermostat placements and bathrooms suitable for wheelchair use.

The release stressed that “manufacturers will be able to use their existing processes, suppliers and materials,” and that FEMA will “do a significant run of units to create a stock of accessible travel trailers.” No mention, of course, of building the RVs to stricter HUD requirements—ANSI regs will suffice. And no acknowledgment of Elliott’s view that people “shouldn’t be living in them” because, of course, we all know they do. Even people in wheelchairs. In disaster areas.

What could possibly go wrong?

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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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