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As housing costs climb, living in an RV park is affordable, if technically illegal

When Glenda Peck moved to the area five years ago from Arizona she lived in an apartment that cost $600 per month. Then, the rent went up to $900 and she was priced out. It was an older, crummy place in the Hudson’s Bay neighborhood.

“I didn’t think it was worth it,” she said.

So, she bought a 26-foot recreational vehicle and moved to Hazel Dell RV Park (which used to be known as Vancouver RV Park).

“It’s a pretty good feeling, actually. Nobody’s going to foreclose on me,” said Peck, 61. “It’s a very affordable lifestyle.”

Her RV has a small bedroom, sitting area, kitchen and bathroom. She’s converted her former dining area into a space for her pet birds, a blue-crowned conure named Emmy and a mini-macaw named Crystal.

She even convinced her 80-year-old mother to take on RV living as a sort of retirement plan. Edith Perrone went from living alone in a four-bedroom house to a brand-new 37-foot trailer just a few spaces over from Peck’s. Before selling her home in Hazel Dell, Perrone toured retirement communities. The first one she looked at cost $3,700 monthly.

“I thought, ‘That’s crazy,’ ” Perrone said.

She’s still learning the ins and outs of the trailer, using sticky notes to label buttons that she should and should not push. Perrone, a retired paralegal, wasn’t sure about it at first but warmed to the idea of living near her daughter and having minimal housework and yardwork — though she still cares for some roses.

“I love the fact she keeps her independence this way,” Peck said.

This mother-daughter duo are not the only people to discover the financial benefits of living in an RV park. For a growing number of people, it offers a cheaper alternative to a traditional rental. And the RV itself is something people can call their own. RVs vary widely in cost depending on the floorplan, features and age. A used travel trailer could cost just a few thousand dollars while a new motorcoach could easily cost more than $100,000.

The fair market monthly rent for a studio apartment in Clark County is $1,131, a one-bedroom is $1,234, and a two-bedroom costs $1,441, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which determines typical rental rates based on the results of a local survey.

Renting a concrete pad is more affordable. At Van Mall RV Park, located among several car lots just outside the city limits, sites cost $400 to $530 monthly depending on whether it’s a back-in or pull-through. The month-to-month rent includes water, sewer, garbage, Wi-Fi and cable, as well as use of the onsite restroom, shower and laundry facilities. Tenants pay for electricity.

Over the years park manager Christine Johnson has noticed a trend toward long-term RV living.

“I think a lot of it is to combat the cost increase in the housing market,” she said.

When Johnson first started working in the industry, it was a lot of retirees and people on fixed incomes who were choosing this lifestyle.

“Now you see a lot of younger people who like the mobility of the RV parks,” she said.

As people seek cheaper alternatives to the hot housing market, they’re looking into tiny houses, RVs and generally more minimalist living. Johnson said she has a wait list of 20 or 30.

Matthew Scheiber, 33, touts the cost savings. Living in an RV park affords him the ability to travel, camp and explore the outdoors.

He spoke on the phone with The Columbian while visiting Minneapolis.

“If I was making a $1,500 payment on a house I wouldn’t be able to do stuff like this,” he said. “It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

When Scheiber was younger he owned a smaller RV for weekend camping. The one he has now — and the ones shown at RV shows — are like houses, he said.

“They have big nice refrigerators and deep sinks,” Scheiber said. “The quality, or the appearance of it, has gone up a lot.”

Scheiber lives alone, but is joined part time by his 4-year-old son, Ian. They don’t need a huge space. Ian often plays with other kids in the RV park and they visit nearby Orchards Community Park. Scheiber said that eventually he plans to move with his son into a more traditional house.

“He’s going to be growing up and he needs his own room and everything,” Scheiber said.

The RV park was a good immediate and temporary option when he got divorced. But, he said, it comes with its downsides, such as a lack of entertaining space, storage and proximity to neighbors.

A technical violation

There’s one main issue with making an RV park your primary residence: It’s technically not allowed. Clark County code says that RV parks are “intended to provide for the accommodation of visitors who travel by recreational vehicle and reside in that vehicle” for up to 180 days. However, the code is not routinely enforced.

If somebody filed a complaint, county code enforcement officers would follow up and enforce the ordinance, said Kevin Pridemore, code coordinator for the county.

“I’ve been here for 25 years. I’ve never seen that complaint,” he said.

So if people have been living permanently in RV parks, why not amend the code?

RVs are constructed on mobile chassis and are not designed for long-term habitation. One chapter of the National Fire Protection Agency’s 64-page RV standard defines a recreational vehicle as “a vehicle or slide-in camper that is primarily designed as temporary living quarters for recreational, camping or seasonal use.”

Craig Sedlacek, manager of the factory assembled structures program at the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, said RVs are held to a safety standard, but it’s a much different standard from a house or an apartment building.

A home with a foundation has a floor and a roof designed to carry certain loads. RVs have no such structural requirements. A new home has to be wired by a licensed electrician; RV wiring is typically installed by a factory worker.

Sedlacek is on a national committee comprised primarily of people in the RV manufacturing industry, who decide what’s going to be in the standard, called NFPA 1192.

“There’s no consideration being given to being lived in full time,” he said.

Different standards

The main issue with having people living permanently in RVs is it creates a second class of housing, Sedlacek said. Stick-built homes and RVs meet different criteria.

Sedlacek’s employees at Labor & Industries inspect the factories that build the RVs to see if the manufacturing process meets the NFPA standard and the RVs being built are safe. More than 100 factories send RVs to Washington, though most are located in Indiana.

All RVs sold or leased in Washington have to bear a state Labor & Industries insignia. Last year, 22,589 insignias were sold — the most in the last 15 years.

It indicates that interest in RVs is growing, the number of insignias having reached a low during the recession. Though most of the units are used as intended, people are choosing to permanently reside in RVs whether or not local codes jibe with their lifestyle.

Kate Budd, executive director of Vancouver-based Council for the Homeless, said it’s logical for households to consider an RV due to the cost savings, and she knows more families are opting to live permanently in RV parks. For those on fixed incomes, the rent at an RV park may be their only affordable housing option.

Every park has different rules, which can still be a barrier for extremely low-income households. Some Council for the Homeless clients have RVs that are too old to be accepted in a local RV park, or their RV is not in good repair. RV parks run the gamut in quality, too.

Budd said it’s commendable to see people come up with an affordable housing solution that works for them, but it may not be the panacea people think it is. Like automobiles, RVs lose their value as they age. They may not last as long as expected.

When asked if living in an RV park is viable long-term, Budd took a long pause before replying.

“I think it’s absolutely a viable short-term solution,” she said. Households can get their basic needs met, such as having a safe place to sleep, cook and bathe.

Numerous families are doing the best they can in a difficult situation, Budd said, before concluding: “But, I wouldn’t see it as a long-term option.”

Peck, the 61-year-old with pet birds, and her mother just upgraded. They moved to Clark County’s newest RV park on Northeast 179th Street called Ridgefield Fairgrounds RV & Storage, so they could rent RV pads next to each other.

The website for the park boasts oversized RV spaces and a luxurious clubhouse facility with showers and laundry for all guests. The monthly rate is $700 plus electricity and water, $100 more than the initial price of Peck’s first apartment in Vancouver.

“We’re really hoping it’s quiet,” Peck said.

Comparing costs

Monthly rent at Van Mall RV Park: $430

Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Clark County: $1,234

Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Did you know?

Vancouver city code does not allow RV parks, and none are located within the city limits.


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