First they came for the homeless . . .

No matter what metrics you examine, the national housing crisis gets only more dire with each passing month–yet the prevailing social response has been to make it ever harder for people to find a place they can call home. The predictable result: more people living on the streets, more rattletrap RVs heading for public lands and growing tension between those who own a home (or can afford rent) and those who don’t.

On the supply side, the latest news is that the average home price in the U.S. popped above $375,000 in March, a 15% increase over the past 12 months. This development came against a backdrop of mortgage rates nearly doubling in the same period, prompting headline writers to coo that an overwrought real estate market might finally be poised to cool down, as if that’s somehow meaningful. But unless they’re predicting an actual real estate downturn (they’re not), what the headline writers are saying is that housing prices will remain lodged at levels far higher than most working people can afford.

On the demand side, there simply isn’t enough affordable housing to go around, and the consequences are truly inhumane. Thomas Fuller, writing last week for the New York Times out of its San Francisco bureau, reported that Los Angeles last year averaged five homeless deaths a day, including 287 who “took their last breath on the sidewalk.” Overall, he added, “the epidemic of deaths on the streets of American cities has accelerated, as the homeless population has aged and the cumulative toll of living and sleeping outdoors has shortened lives.”

Austin, Denver, Indianapolis, Nashville and Salt Lake City are among the cities Fuller cited where officials and homeless advocates have been alarmed by the rising number of deaths–yet the public response to homelessness in these and other cities has been increasingly punitive. The Los Angeles City Council, for example, recently decided that starting May 15 it will again enforce parking restrictions for “vehicle dwellings,” which essentially means that derelict RVs will get towed away. There undoubtedly are numerous legitimate reasons for doing this–not least among them a marked upswing in RVs going up in flames on city streets–but without an offsetting effort to provide low-cost housing, this simply means the city will be pushing homeless people back onto the sidewalk.

Sidewalk living, however, is increasingly criminalized. Austin, once an affordable city, has become the national leader in rising housing costs, with rents soaring 40% over the twelve months through February. Its residents nonetheless voted last year to reinstate criminal penalties against public camping, and the Texas legislature piled on a few weeks later by banning homeless encampments statewide and fining offenders $500. That’s called “squeezing blood from a stone,” but other states–including Florida and New Hampshire–have followed suit with similarly draconian bans.

Remarkably enough, some few landowners have tried to do what their public representatives apparently can’t, opening their private property to homeless campers. Unremarkably, mostly what they get is community pushback and official slap-downs. When one such private project, Camp Haven Sanctuary, became home to 19 otherwise homeless people outside Austin, local neighbors blasted the effort in online posts that were so vitriolic they had to be taken down. A similar encampment on private land in Akron, Ohio, was shut down by city officials who said it violated zoning restrictions–as were encampments in Salt Lake City, Morganton, WV, and elsewhere.

The housing squeeze is getting worse in other ways as well. Mobile home parks, frequently cited as America’s cheapest non-subsidized housing, increasingly are being sold either to developers who want the land for other uses, or to speculators intent on raising the rents. On those rare occasions when state legislators try to enact some kind of relief–as is happening currently in Colorado, where a House bill would cap annual rent increases–the real estate industry responds with cries about “rent control” and accusations of government overreach. Those may or may not be valid points, but they’re never followed by alternative approaches for dealing with a growing human tragedy.

Elsewhere, Tennessee earlier this month enacted a law straight out of a Dickens novel, requiring renters who want to appeal an eviction to first produce a year’s worth of rent. To break that down: if you’re a renter in Tennessee and can’t afford a rent hike, your landlord can evict you–and you’ll need to show a judge $15,000 or so before you can even file an appeal. Since for many people that’s even less likely than homeless people having $500 to pay a fine in Texas, the inevitable result will be even more people on the street.

Tennessee, to be sure, may be on the kook fringe. This is the state, after all, that made national headlines this past week when it also hopped onto the criminalization bandwagon, passing legislation that makes it a felony to camp or sleep in parks or other public property. Sen. Frank Niceley (see? another Dickensian touch, if rather sardonically so) backed the bill by telling his colleagues that in 1910 Adolf Hitler “decided” to be homeless. “So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and his body language and how to connect with the masses and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books,” Niceley recounted.

“So a lot of these people, it’s not a dead-end,” Niceley concluded, in the ultimate perversion of a let’s-make-lemonade-out-of-lemons sermon. “They can come out of this, these homeless camps and have a productive life — or in Hitler’s case a very unproductive life.”

Hard to know just what Niceley intended with that unfortunate digression, but one reasonable interpretation is that our treatment of the homeless is breeding thousands of potential Adolf Hitlers. Maybe that suggests we should get serious about finding alternative responses. Until that happens, however, we can expect more homeless people occupying state and federal land, and more of a jaundiced attitude toward RVers and campers in general.

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.

Housing squeeze makes RVs a default

The development struggle that’s been going on in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, for much of the past year is symptomatic of a growing problem around the country, as developers rush in to capitalize on the renewed interest in RVs and RV campgrounds. As with any boom investment, the financial shock waves thrown off by big money frequently buffet little people who have no skin in the game and are simply trying to get by–and when it’s their housing that’s at stake, the end result is immiseration.

In Maggie Valley, the conflict began when a Myrtle Beach-based developer unveiled a $200 million (!) plan to revive a defunct theme park, which many locals remember fondly from the latter half of the last century. But bringing Ghost Town in the Sky back to life requires a lot more juice than it once did, the developer explained; it requires a whole lot of ancillary development, from new restaurants to a hotel to a health clinic. It also will require finding at least 200 new workers in an area that doesn’t currently have them, and new housing for all those workers, because the area doesn’t have enough of that, either. That’s why reviving the theme park also means building additional RV campgrounds, he told the town, because that’s the cheapest and most flexible housing solution–even though the town has precious little flat land and at least a dozen existing campgrounds already serving the tourist trade.

The campground “solution” raises several issues, not least among them the suitability of RVs for long-term housing. But here’s an even more fundamental question: why isn’t there enough housing in Maggie Valley for the people who work there? And the answer, as just about all resort towns already know, is that real estate prices have gone through the roof. In Maggie Valley, located in Haywood County, home prices have jumped 33.7% in just the past year and 73.3% over the past five years, to an average of $338,316. Meanwhile, the average monthly income in Haywood County was just $2,454 in 2020, putting affordable housing out of reach of the people working in the tourist industry that is supposed to inject the town with economic vitality.

Ironically, while some of that upward pressure on prices is due to inadequate new construction, a significant part of it is the result of the pandemic-fueled return to the outdoors that developers are now trying to exploit. As local observers have noted, new visitors arrive, they fall in love with the mountain scenery and they decide to stay–sort of–by buying a vacation home. Sometimes two. That’s nice for them, providing a refuge from whatever claustrophobic cities they call home, but while their surplus homes sit empty most of the time, local workers more rooted to the area can’t find an affordable place to live.

This is not a problem peculiar to Maggie Valley, of course, although it may be more pronounced in mountain communities because of their additional topographic constraints on new home construction. Local news reported last summer that many workers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were living out of their cars in Bridger-Teton National Forest because there was no housing to be had. In the Idaho panhandle this past week, the Shoshone Board of County Commissioners heard numerous objections to a proposed RV park, including the fear that it would essentially become a magnet for “trailer trash.” As one local resident pointed out, a plummeting availability of rental properties is forcing area workers to turn to short-term rentals and RVs for their housing needs, with RV campgrounds at risk of becoming the next generation of trailer courts.

Indeed, short-term rentals are the other main driver of housing scarcity: real estate investors have concluded that the higher rates they can charge for short stays more than compensate for their higher risk compared to long-term rentals, and so have been snapping up houses and apartments that would otherwise be rented by working people. The short-term rental sector is so lucrative that newcomers like reAlpha–trolling for new investors with as little as $1,000 to buy in–dangle an irresistible set of numbers: Zillow’s estimate that long-term rentals are currently pulling in an average of $1,495 a month, vs. Airbnb estimates of $3,256 a month for short-term stays. “There’s a reason billionaires invest 20-40% of their wealth in real estate,” reAlpha croons.

Given those pressures, it’s little wonder that many RV campgrounds increasingly are headed in the direction of being dumping grounds for people with nowhere else to go. RVs are hardly designed for year-round living, and unlike regular housing they depreciate over time, so their owners never build up the equity that would allow them to escape their trap. But they are a step above living out of a car in a national forest–and they do enable developers with deep pockets and large ambitions to keep on getting bigger.

Housing squeeze pressures RV parks

As worries about rising inflation grow more widespread, the most obvious remedy is rarely mentioned: provide more things for people to buy. And one of the most obvious “things” in short supply is affordable housing.

Inflation is the result of too much money chasing too few goods, so a common government response when inflation heats up is to rein in the money supply. Money, after all, is something over which government has the most direct control. But an alternative response is to increase the supply of goods. That’s harder, because the government’s influence on goods production is more indirect, but it almost certainly is the healthier response overall.

What brings this to mind is the appalling–and growing–shortage of affordable housing in the U.S. The National Association of Relators this month said the nation is short 6.8 million housing units, due to a 20-year-long slowdown in housing construction, and most of what’s being built is on the high end of the market. The steady decline in housing construction feeds into a vicious circle, in which fewer people–especially including retirees–can afford to move, so they stay put. Then, when changing business or economic trends require workers to relocate, the housing available to them is both over-priced and in short supply.

A leading example of this phenomenon, ironically, is Elkhart, Indiana, in and around which more than 80% of all U.S. RVs are manufactured. Last month, Elkhart was tagged by The Wall Street Journal and realtor.com as the nation’s “best emerging housing market,” which is investor-speak for “get in now because prices are about to go through the roof.” Indeed, with a median price for houses of just $232,250, the local housing market is starting from a relatively low base–while the booming RV construction industry means demand for additional workers, and therefore for additional housing, is high and going higher. Indeed, as one local reporter noted this month, “almost two-thirds of the buyers in the Elkhart area were not locals.”

While prices for Elkhart housing have started exploding, the economic engine behind much of that growth–the RV manufacturing industry–is likewise in high gear, on course to crank out a record-breaking 600,000 or so units this year alone. Those recreational vehicles, in turn, are being snatched up not just by that segment of the public that puts the emphasis on “recreational,” but by that segment of the public that can’t find, or can’t afford, conventional housing.

So, for example, Austin, Texas, is facing a housing squeeze in part because Tesla has moved its headquarters there and also is nearing completion of a “gigafactory” that will employ up to 10,000 low- and middle-skill workers. Paid an average of less than $50,000 a year in a city where the average home price is now $525,000, those workers also will be scrambling to find an affordable place to live–and the area’s trailer courts and RV parks are gearing up to accommodate at least some of them. One predictable outcome: the cost of staying in an RV park will be bumped up considerably.

Such housing price inflation is a nationwide phenomenon, not confined just to Elkhart or Austin, and is indicative not of too much money but of inadequate supply. Increasing the supply of middle-income housing would not only meet people’s basic need for shelter at a cost they can afford, but would relieve the pressure on recreational facilities that never were intended to be this century’s version of Hoovervilles.

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