Housing crisis buffets RVing public

The ongoing and deepening U.S. housing crisis continues to ripple through the RV and camping industry, as more people are squeezed out of conventional housing and traditional notions of what it means to have “conventional housing” get upended.

With housing prices at historic highs, asking rents are likewise soaring–23% higher in the second quarter compared to the same period in 2019, according to an Axios report last week, a gain of more than 8% a year. That’s a nationwide average, by the way, including small towns and rural areas; major metropolitan areas are a different story altogether. The average monthly rent in Manhattan, for example, just crossed the $5,000 level for the first time, but asking rents (the rent for new leases, not lease renewals) in lesser cities are growing by double-digit percentages. The year-on-year increase in December, for example, was 23% in Austin, 26% in Phoenix and 29% in West Palm Beach, Florida.

But rental properties aren’t getting more expensive simply because real estate overall is getting pricier: in many places the supply is shrinking as well, especially in the kinds of places that attract tourists and people with money and a hankering for a second home. Investment-property owners who once might have signed year-long leases now find it’s more lucrative to cater to the vacation crowd, converting to Airbnb listings. Owners of second homes, on the other hand, either leave the properties vacant for much of the year or also resort to short-term rentals, resulting in Airbnb listings outside of major metro areas soaring nearly 50% between the second quarters of 2019 and 2022. Either way, the inventory of conventional, affordable rental housing has been diminishing at a steady clip.

What’s a person to do? The default, for those who suddenly can’t afford to rent a house or an apartment, is to move into an RV, a van or even a tent. Some end up in campgrounds, some on public lands, some on city streets. That migration creates a host of social problems, from health and safety issues having to do with inadequate sanitation and increased fire hazards, to societal instability and environmental degradation. But it also amounts to an invasion of a public sphere that most people still regard as essentially recreational rather than residential. Increasingly, RVers report they can’t find a camping site, or the sites that they can find have been trashed or are in close proximity to “campers” who make them uncomfortable.

Some communities are attempting to deal with the problem at its root by limiting short-term rentals. Stinson Beach, a California ocean-side community just north of San Francisco, recently banned new Airbnbs, following the example of San Diego–which has approved a cap that is expected to cut vacation rentals in half–and San Bernardino County, which has temporarily stopped issuing permits for new Airbnbs and other vacation rentals. In Colorado, meanwhile, the Steamboat Springs city council has not only banned new short-term rentals but is seeking to impose a 9% tax on existing rentals with which to fund affordable housing.

Such efforts, however, inevitably generate opposition from property owners and civil libertarians, like the lawsuit filed against Lincoln County, Oregon, after voters last fall readily approved a ban on new short-term rentals. Earlier this month the Oregon Land Use Board of AppealsĀ overturned the measure, ruling the decision goes against state laws, but ban supporters have vowed to continue the fight to “reclaim” their neighborhoods. Similar confrontations are bubbling up elsewhere.

As RVs increasingly become homes of last resort, legislative attempts to recognize and regulate this expanding use frequently run into opposition from trade groups eager to maintain the legal distinction between vehicles and homes. The RV Industry Association, for example, reported last week on its success earlier this year in modifying proposed legislation in New Hampshire that sought to define a “tiny house.” As initially written, the measure would have required a “tiny house on wheels” to “have a seal from a third-party inspection company authorized to provide such certification for tiny homes or recreational vehicles,” which RVIA contended would have resulted in RV standards being “confused with building codes meant for structures used as housing intended for year-round occupancy.”

Thanks to the trade group’s intervention, the reference to RVs was removed–although that did nothing to change the fact that RVs and park models are being used for year-round occupancy. The bill itself, meanwhile, died in committee.

Similarly, a bill in Colorado that RVIA dogged earlier this year would have established a definition of “RV residence,” a mash-up that made the trade group bristle. In addition to applying to any type of RV or park model used as “permanent or semi-permanent living quarters,” the legislation would have created regulations for properly registering an “RV residence” and hooking up an “RV residence” to utilities. The bill overall was meant to regulate tiny homes and was signed into law in May–but only after the “RV residence” references were all stripped out.

While it is indeed incorrect to refer to tiny homes and RVs in the same breath, as the two are built to entirely different standards and codes, the practical effect of actions like those just mentioned is to leave full-time RV residency in a legal and regulatory limbo. While RVIA and others insist that RVs are not intended for year-round occupancy, the reality is that’s how they’re being used, and increasingly so, for the reasons outlined above. Moreover, that’s also how they’re increasingly viewed by the public–which is why they were so readily lumped in with tiny homes by two widely separate state legislatures.

By maintaining the fiction that RVs are just hard-sided tents on wheels, we’re simply tolerating the development of a new generation of slum dwellings.

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