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?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Most recent posts

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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.

%d bloggers like this: