By Amelia Arvesen Daily Times-Call, Longmont, Colo.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As the cost of housing balloons and as 20- to 30-year-olds increasingly embrace mobility and minimalism, living on wheels in vans and vehicles is rising as a viable alternative to traditional housing.
Daily Times-Call, Longmont, Colo.
Rain patters on the roof of John Salhany's 2006 Mercedes Sprinter van as he points out the half-finished ceiling of tongue-and-groove pine paneling that will eventually continue down the walls over layers of plywood and reflective insulation.
Items strewn in the hollowed back include a dusty climbing rope, a road bike and a six-pack of Upslope Brewing Company's Citra Pale Ale.
All his essentials will soon have their places once the van build-out is complete, when Salhany will have a bed big enough to accommodate all 6 feet, 2 inches of him, a countertop with a sink and drawers, and maybe even a backsplash with the cutout of the mountains -- amenities like that of a house.
"I have a lot of friends who are buying houses right now who are just getting to that age, all on the East Coast and I'm just like, how do you guys know where you want to live?" said Salhany, 25. "You're buying a house 20 minutes from where we grew up in small-town Massachusetts, but you don't know what the rest of the country has to offer."
As the cost of housing balloons in growing cities, such as in Boulder County, and as 20- to 30-year-olds increasingly embrace mobility and minimalism, living on wheels in vans and vehicles is rising as a viable alternative to traditional housing across the nation.
"I love Boulder, but I'm not ready to buy a house here even if I could afford it," said Salhany, who is tied to a lease through August 2018 while he works on the van. "There's so much more to explore. I'm just not at that point in my life where I'm prepared to be like, I love this place, I'm going to settle down."
People have been inhabiting vehicles for decades -- bands on tour and families RV camping -- but in the last few years, trading a cement foundation for wheels has risen as a movement. There is major appeal in not being tethered to any one place for Salhany and others wanting to pick up and leave at a moment's notice to places for exploration.
"Being in a van allows me to go and say, 'I've never been to New Mexico. Let me leave and check out New Mexico. How's Santa Fe? Santa Fe's cool; I'm gonna hang out for a few days,'" he said. "How about Vegas? Stop in Vegas, don't like it, get back in the car and keep driving."
Just search #vanlife on Instagram for more than 1.8 million photos (a number that increased from 1.7 million in a week) or #homeiswhereyouparkit for more than 500,000 photos of people snuggled into their tiny spaces and vehicles strung with lights and mounted with solar panels in front of mountainous backdrops and posted to various accounts, such as Vanlife Diaries, Vanlife Colorado and Our Van View.
On any given street in Boulder County, a live-in vehicle could be parked at nightfall and gone by sunrise. Or, if it's not on public land in the mountains, staying there for days raises the suspicions of neighbors and police.
A Toyota Tacoma with a topper on Glenwood Street in Boulder. A Jeep Cherokee at dawn beside the East Mapleton Ball Fields. One or several Mercedes Sprinter vans overnight in any given climbing gym's parking lot. A Chevrolet conversion van in a shady spot at Thompson Park in Longmont.
The windows are most likely covered with curtains or dividers; otherwise, a bed and belongings would be visible. And if the owners are hanging out inside, it's probably hard to tell unless they open the door, as many prefer to keep a low profile.
"I like to call home free -- all of us do," said Ryan Lowe, a former Boulder resident who founded the Vanlife Colorado Instagram account in 2015 after ending an apartment lease to live on the road.
Houseless, not homeless That intentional choice to move out of an apartment and into a vehicle for reasons of freedom and simplification is not the same as homelessness. Van lifers acknowledge the difference, as many have steady jobs and assets, and most could afford to pay rent if they wanted.
"The line between it is whether you're doing it because you want to or because you have to," said Lowe, 33, who now lives in his Ford E-350 van most frequently in various Denver parking lots and wants to be a resource for Colorado van lifers.
Yet the two communities blur a little because both face swelling housing prices and laws across Boulder County discouraging people from permanently sheltering in their vehicles. The area has the fourth-lowest level of houses available in the country, according to a recent report.
In Boulder, it takes a few days before neighbors catch on that the van or truck across the street is actually its owner's bedroom, according to Boulder Detective Sgt. Jim MacPherson.
He said police don't publicize the law out of fear of abuse, but it's legal for someone to spend one night in their vehicle. He said the law caters to visitors passing through Boulder, not struggling locals.
"We normally don't write those tickets unless it's a chronic problem with the same car," MacPherson said. "Someone will sleep in their car for three or four days and then we get a phone call."
Those calls for abandoned or suspicious vehicles come more often in the summer than in the winter, he said, but it's typically at least once every week.
"It's way more prevalent than anybody knows," Mike Homner, an advocate for the homeless who would like to see a parking garage or lot designated for the homeless taking shelter in vehicles. "Everybody is hiding in the shadows because of the camping ban and it's illegal to sleep in their car."
In Longmont, the City Council could take action Tuesday night on a measure that would require RVs and camper trailers to be moved at least 600 feet within 48 hours after code enforcement or police officers mark the tires with chalk and post notices on those vehicles.
Assistant City Manager Shawn Lewis said Longmont has one of the most liberal policies in the state regarding living in RVs on public streets.
"We are one of the few cities that has no prohibitions on it, and we aren't putting any additional restrictions on the practice that aren't in place today," he said in an email. "The only thing we are doing is clarifying how far one must move a vehicle after a certain amount of time -- and we are actually extending the amount of time you can be on a street."
It's the most recent policy aimed at restricting people in Longmont from setting up camp in public places, and consideration by the council follows a slew of complaints about people dwelling in RVs, vehicles and camper trailers in various spots throughout the city, such as in the JCPenney parking lot. The neighborhood forum Next Door is also a platform for unsettled residents to share their grumbles.
One woman wrote to the council in support of the enforcement, saying, "I would support a location in Longmont where a person(s) can live in an RV for small fee if that is the only means a person(s) can afford. We can't turn into places I've heard of in (California) where people live in their cars and trucks on the street."
Opposing the enforcement, resident Michael Habinsky wrote that the ordinance would be action against people that aren't as lucky as those in permanent housing. He said, "RVs are a sort of release valve for housing pressure in our community...RVs are there for a reason: our community's failure to provide affordable housing."