RVs as Swiss Army knives of housing

Part of a two-mile-long line of RVs parked along a frontage road for Highway 101 in Marin County, California, reflective of a growing affordability crisis in housing throughout the U.S.

Swiss Army knives have been promoted for decades as the epitome of versatile utility. Carrying one in your pocket, you can have an arsenal of handy tools at your disposal—not just a knife blade or two, but if you’re so inclined, various screwdrivers, a bottle opener, can opener, corkscrew, metal saw, metal file . . . on and on to absurd lengths, including a toothpick, tweezers and magnifying glass, depending on how much you want to spend. The scissors aren’t worth a damn, and the Leatherman multitool eventually demonstrated what a folding pair of pliers should look like, but you can still shell out more than a hundred bucks for 6.5 ounces of 33 “essential features.”

So it is with RVs, which at one time (and not so long ago, either), were little more than hard-sided tents on wheels. But as with Swiss Army knives, which “evolved” from basic tools to gussied-up toys, you can get anything from a minimalist model to one with as many extras as you care to underwrite, progressing from an ice chest and Coleman stove all the way up to house-size refrigerators, sinks and showers with running water and flush toilets, microwaves and induction cooktops, flat panel TVs, electric levelers, gas furnaces . . . on and on to absurd lengths, including heated floors and washers and dryers.

All that frippery gets sold in the name of both comfort and versatility, in the same way that Swiss Army knives are pitched as the ultimate survival tool to urban dwellers who almost never will be in a situation that puts them to the test. Thanks to the many, many “upgrades” that have gone into “improving” today’s RVs, you can “enjoy nature” without actually getting into it, much as you can enjoy the outdoors in a zoo or at an aquarium, staring at other life forms through glass or bars; just haul your metal, plastic and glass cocoon from one Eden to another, marveling at nature’s bounty from the comfort of your marvelously appointed environment.

Okay. To each his or her own, and if that’s how you choose to spend your money and time, the proper American response is to say “so be it.” Freedom! But the thing is, this isn’t just about individual choice. All those hundreds of thousands of decisions to buy an RV with bells and whistles are rapidly becoming a socially warping phenomenon. And unlike Swiss Army knives, which even in the tens of millions are an insignificant addition to the social landscape, RVs have a distortion effect more comparable to that of the automobile.

There is, first, the impact they have on the physical landscape itself, both directly—because of their increasing weight and size, as well as their consequential increased gas consumption—and indirectly, primarily through the ancillary development of campgrounds and other support services. Those two million or so RVs sold since the start of the pandemic have sparked an enormous land rush by investors looking to cash in on the next big thing, and they’re not content to build what once was considered an “average” size RV park, of 100 or so sites. As this blog has repeatedly observed, the norm now is 300, 350, 400 sites—or much, much more.

Earlier this month, for example, the Daytona Beach City Commission in Florida signed off on revised plans for an RV park it had initially approved only a few months ago. The original plan called for 480 sites, which is very big by any measure; the revision, however, boosts that to 1,200. Public opinion on the decision was split along familiar lines, with those in opposition fretting about increased traffic and the effect on local wildlife, including bears (yes, bears—in central Florida), gopher tortoises and sandhill cranes. But for those favoring the increase it all boils down to the anticipated economic boost from increased tourism, and that’s a trump card that all too often wins the day.

Or consider the Hobson’s choice confronting residents of the optimistically named New Hope, Tennessee, where the owners of a 110-acre farm have had their property on the market for two years. Land-rich and cash-poor, they’re all too ready to sell it to an RV park developer who—if all goes as proposed—eventually will create 400 or more RV sites in a town with fewer than 900 residents. Those who turned out Monday for a public meeting on the matter clearly were torn between their understanding of why the farm is up for sale and of just how thoroughly such a sale will disrupt their lives—although as one participant noted, an RV park has got to be better than a Chinese battery factory. Or a chicken plant.

A low bar, indeed.

But it’s not just their environmental impact that makes RVs so disruptive. Marketed as a complete home package, they increasingly get promoted as actual residences, resulting in blurred distinctions and legal challenges. In Baldwin County, Alabama, for instance, the owner of a mobile home park currently is arguing with local officials and the state attorney general about their refusal to permit RVs on his property because that would violate county subdivision regulations. As the aggrieved park owner points out, RVs already are a common feature in mobile home parks across the county, so why shouldn’t he allowed to add a few spots for the RVs of construction workers hired for a new aluminum and recycling plant?

Indeed, as this blog also has observed, the Alabama dispute about RVs vs. mobile homes is going on all around the country. The irony is that this changing perception, in which RVs have morphed from recreational vehicles to residential ones, is actually putting the squeeze on the RV parks themselves—or, more accurately, on the RVers who want to stay at campgrounds because they’re, you know, camping. It’s telling, in this regard, that the latest quarterly report from Sun Communities attributes its strong financial results, in part, to its “transient-to-annual RV conversions of 524 sites”—that is, to 524 RV sites that are now filled with RVers who aren’t going anywhere. That’s swell for campground owners who no longer have to fret about low occupancy rates, but not so great for RVers looking for a site for the night.

The growing acceptance of RVs as acceptable—if not exactly desirable—housing has filtered all the way down to the economic stratum in which the thought of an RV vacation is as fanciful as dreams of dining on crêpes suzette in Paris. The progression through which homeless people have gone from sleeping on steam grates or under newspapers to pitching tents to living in battered vans, travel trailers and Class Cs has proceeded with breathtaking speed, reintroducing us within a decade to a world of Hoovervilles and shanty towns once associated with the Great Depression.

Consider the picture at the top of this post, taken by a San Francisco Chronicle photographer in one of the country’s most affluent counties, where the median household income is $131,000. As one of the couples living in a trailer parked alongside the road told the newspaper’s reporter, there are times when having an RV with a bathroom and kitchen—even though without refrigeration or running water—can make them forget they’re homeless.

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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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