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.

RVs as homes of last resort

I was a reporter in Phoenix, several decades ago (!), when I first heard the term “SRO” while interviewing an anthropologist-turned-housing-advocate about the city’s sharply increasing homeless population. The growing number of people living on the streets, she said, was a direct result of the demise of Single Room Occupancy facilities–sometimes boarding houses, but more often aging hotels that had been converted into bare-bones living quarters at affordable rents. Now, she said, those faded properties were being bulldozed out of existence in response to the city’s exploding real estate market. Those who ended up being evicted? Collateral damage.

Phoenix was hardly unique. The U.S. once had enough SROs to house millions, but by the mid-twentieth century these cheap living quarters had become increasingly targeted by developers, by more stringent fire and building codes and by the moral rectitude of those living in more comfortable circumstances. Between 1955 and 2013, nearly one million SROs in the country were done in by regulation, demolition or conversion to condos. In Chicago, 81% of all SROs disappeared between 1960 and 1980. San Francisco, which today has one of the most expensive real estate markets in the U.S. coupled with one of its highest homeless populations, lost approximately 15,000 SROs between 1970 and 2000.

As SROs declined, however, an alternative form of cheap housing was on the rise, as mobile home parks swiftly became home to millions of mostly lower-income people. Tucked out of sight in the countryside or within industrial areas, such “parks” had the advantage of keeping the underclass out of the urban centers that had been home to SRO occupants. By 2001, more than 7 million mobile homes dotted the American countryside, with more than a third of them concentrated in mobile home parks–until the same forces that whittled away the SROs started working on them, as well. Earlier this month, Forbes magazine commented on how the number of mobile home parks has been “drastically reduced” each passing year, albeit without providing any hard numbers.

Rising real estate values are partly behind that reduction: many trailer parks that once were on the margins of metropolitan areas have become engulfed by urban sprawl, making the land more valuable for other uses. But there’s also the “loss-leader” problem for municipalities, as mobile home parks typically pay much less in local taxes than they soak up in public resources, particularly for local schools. And underlying all the financial dynamics is the whole class issue: with SROs, it was their depiction as “welfare hotels”–even though residents were predominantly unsubsidized. With mobile home parks, it’s the “trailer trash” perception. There is, unfortunately, little tolerance in a society that measures value in dollars for those who don’t have many.

The bad news today, as we head into a year in which remaining pandemic-driven moratoria on evictions are about to expire, is that the number of housing refugees–the people once most likely to need SROs or trailer parks–is about to soar. Meanwhile, low-rent housing–defined as $800 a month or less–declined by 4 million units between 2011 and 2017 and is in chronic short-supply. More than 20 million renters are paying more than 30% of their income for housing, and half of those are paying more than half–a level housing experts call “severely burdened.” Many of those people will soon find themselves on the streets.

What’s all that have to do with RVing and the splendid pursuit of camping in the great outdoors? Nothing, unless one realizes that “camping” isn’t only recreational–that it also defines one extreme of a housing continuum that stretches from gated communities at one end to improvised tents on the sidewalk on the other. And with SROs and mobile home parks increasingly squeezed at the bottom end of the spectrum, the dwindling number of cheap alternatives is making RVs look ever more attractive–for all their shortcomings as long-term housing–to people without other options.

What will be the social consequences? I’ll predict more friction within the RVing community itself, as those who spend big bucks for big fancy rigs used primarily for vacationing start bitching about the low-lifes in the battered travel trailer or class C next door. Look for more and more RV encampments to spring up next to tenting communities on city streets, parks and abandoned strip malls. And expect rising tensions between those who already own homes and those who want to build or expand existing campgrounds that will bring in more of the new transient class, regardless of how much money some of them might have.

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