The Vanlife Movement – # Vanlife
Years of documentation and conversations with friends, some of them directly involved in the phenomenon, allow us to witness the popularity of the phenomenon of small houses and the group of fans around this alternative approach to housing. This is called vanlife.
But the epic of small houses, this vanlife trend, is not a success story without edges; rather, the self-proclaimed ” tiny house movement ” is a decentralized and organic response to the sum of several problems, whose characteristics vary depending on the place and the protagonists.
In the movement of small houses, there are urban young people attracted by the dream of designing their own home on a sufficiently small scale to combine essential services, good materials, and self-sufficiency, both economically, spiritually and geographically: often on wheels or transportable in a truck, they have become the symbolic gateway to alternative lifestyles.
Other less photogenic realities of vanlife, however, lack the positive media interest and occupy the information of events in the local press and social networks.
Vanlife: Classism and alternative housing
The “other” inhabitants of small houses have not become icons of those who want to simplify their lives and confront their essential facts, as recommended by the transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau -one of the references of the current-, using a small house (or in its absence an appetizing motorhome) as a symbolic gateway to a new Wonderland. They serve rather as a stereotype of the entrenched misery in the richest country in the world.
On this occasion, the rabbit hole is not inclusive and only those who choose small and alternative housing as a vital option gain popularity in social networks and even video and television channels dedicated to the phenomenon, vanlife, from the YouTube channel of Kirsten Dirksen to HGTV, by new nomads who document the lives of others in small houses and motor homes and publish it, something idealized, in their social profile.
The # vanlife phenomenon, keyword or hashtag used on Instagram to refer to those who have decided to live on wheels with a vehicle-home, an outdoor lifestyle, the road ahead to experience and ability to receive revenues by advertising themselves as “influencers” “Of a new lifestyle, has raised some blisters for its tendency to idealize reality.
Glamorous small houses vs. “Trailer parks”
Rachel Monroe wrote in the New Yorker to go to look for the image – a sunset with a girl, to be able to be blonde, smiling from the inside of some motorhome in vogue, from the Volkswagen Vanagon / California to the converted Mercedes Sprinter by its own inhabitants-.
The most numerous stories about minimal rooms do not refer to the iconic small houses and motorhomes, recognized as heirs of the self-sufficiency of surfers and hippies crossing the West Coast aboard a ” Westy “, or the purist connoisseur of past intellectuals like the nineteenth-century Americans Thoreau and Emerson, who endeavored-like Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, or Jack London-to synthesize the individualistic, pantheistic, and border character of American culture by building their little writing hut (the Twain case), or to inhabit a season in the forest (Thoreau, London).
Indeed: millions of Americans live their vanlife in motor homes and prefabricated houses parked in camps for this purpose, the “trailer parks”, or small housing camps to accommodate populations often stigmatized and unable to recover from a precarious situation that does not they associate ideals of a simple life, transcendentalism or self-sufficiency of new “millennial” nomads.
The small houses that do not attract on Instagram
Unlike Western Europe and Japan, where the often small size of apartments and houses – current in major cities and metropolitan areas – responds to conventional schemes of social housing – centralized planning of access to housing – or adaptation of the market to the purchasing power of young and disadvantaged groups, the United States has a typology of small housing non-existent in societies with more statist and egalitarian models: static caravans or ” mobile homes “, small prefabricated houses that emulate the design of a recreational caravan, regardless of its wheels and cheaper materials and aesthetics for, on paper, reduce its price.
Static caravans are the pre-eminent room type in the most stigmatized prefabricated housing camps in the United States, whose inhabitants often take names as difficult to overcome in forgotten personal biographies as racial differences, including “trailer park trash” ( Curtis Hanson treated the theme, infamous for many, in 8 Mile, the autobiographical film starring Eminem).
The “mobile homes” subordinate their design to the budget limitation of their target audience and transportability by road onboard a truck with a trailer to avoid extra costs in transport, since the main models are manufactured and assembled at origin (a feature that brings these homes to “small houses” and more desirable motorhomes, especially in the wake of the #tinyhouse and #vanlife phenomena.
Matrix was the Truman show: cardboard houses
Little has to do with the most popular prefabricated homes, built on chassis that, although they are easy to transport on paper, often remain “anchored” in the same recreational park plot, as static as the inability of their residents to improve their living conditions and allow their descendants to escape the social stigma.
The social elevator has also ceased to operate in the suburbs of the United States with the most economical single-family houses (” tract housing “), whose structural fragility – a structure of prefabricated panels and plywood, highly inflammable and not very resistant to high temperatures – has been patent in the last fires that have devastated several localities in the metropolitan north of San Francisco.
The drone images of the suburbs of Santa Rosa show charred wastelands where nothing remains to stand and only the asphalted layout of the streets and the perimeter of the foundations of each house whose original appearance seems taken from the same mold of decoration papier-mâché present in the reality show of The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), or when economies of scale and cost reduction convert the Pleasantville dream into suburbs that no longer guarantee social mobility.
Risks of confusing experimentation and social difficulties
Phenomena such as opioid drug addiction reach epidemic numbers in disadvantaged and middle-class suburbs, until now only preeminent in “mobile neighborhoods” that the majority of American society does not visit, where the supposed advantage of self-sufficiency, simplicity, and mobility does not work as a claim for middle-class millennials.
Far from popular hashtags on social networks, YouTube channels and most popular small-house programs, such as Tiny House Hunters, mobile homes – which tend to remain static, arranged without wheels on the rented plot of a “trailer park” – remain as the unsubsidized type of “cheapest house” most preeminent in the United States: there are 8.5 million units, or 6% of the housing stock in the country, with an average cost of $ 37,100 (32,000 euros).
On paper, this small investment that provides a roof to 20 million Americans, would allow savings to access conventional housing or protection, but the reality is more complex: in addition to those who voluntarily opt for the least glamorous and most stigmatized option of reduced houses to simplify the day to day, the parks tell fictional biographies: from those who lost their homes in some catastrophe to students paying their university debt and living in a small travel trailer sometimes without a bathroom, long-term unemployed living poorly with food assistance and older people who substitute more space for a more simplified life and community, without forgetting the community of war veterans.
Those who live in small houses without having chosen it
For Katherine MacTavish, professor at Oregon State University and co-author of an essay on “trailer parks” published at the end of 2019 ( Singlewide: Chasing the American Dream in a Rural Trailer Park ), the trailer-houses, with their prefabricated aesthetic feature, plant low and rectangular, materials little resistant to the passage of time such as vinyl, offer few long-term benefits to most of its residents, the biggest of which is to prevent many Americans from ending up living in a car, in some unappetizing motorhome or on the street.
The book (Sonya Salamon and Katherine MacTavish, Cornell University Press), compiles the experience of 240 permanent residents in static caravan camps, shows the difficulty of its inhabitants to leave the cycle of poverty and provide their descendants with stability, education, and opportunities to ascend socially.
there are many individuals, couples, single-parent families and retirees who own the static caravan in property, the plot where the house sits usually remains on rent, subjecting residents to changes in the lease, especially as the “trailer “Family-owned parks go into corporate hands, a phenomenon of concentration that began in the 1990s.
The average monthly price of these plots is $ 250, and an increase in rent has an impact on the economy of individuals and families with reduced incomes, who in turn have purchased their “mobile home” by resorting to a debt problem they face. anyone interested in financing alternative housing that is not considered as such by credit institutions.
The industrial complex of static caravans
Buy this type of housing, explains Mimi Kirk at CityLab ,
“It often means accepting a loan similar to the one you give to buy a car, since static caravans are generally classified as chattel – personal property, as opposed to real estate.”
The interest on personal loans is consistently superior to any mortgage loan, which implies, even in a context of low-interest rates, assume interest rates of 13.5% or more for a property that loses about half of its value. market value in 3 years, as it happens as a car or a compact motorhome.
“This scheme is part of what the authors [referring to the aforementioned essay by Katherine MacTavish and Sonya Salamon] describe as ‘the static caravan industrial complex’, and that is what prevents mobile home owners from taking advantage of the capital invested in his purchase to later acquire a conventional home. “
An often fragile and unattractive design, the social stigmas associated with the zip code belonging to a caravan camp and the absence of real estate performance make current mobile homes an unlikely candidate for the values with which phenomena have been associated: #tinyhouse and #vanlife, so popular in social networks that they have acquired an aspirational aura among young urbanites.
Parked in front of Stanford University
At the intersection between the difficulties of the inhabitants of the caravan park plot and young nomads in search of their countercultural experience aboard a Volkswagen Transporter motorhome or, recently, the reconverted Mercedes Sprinter, the designers of small houses try to provide quality of life and aesthetic appeal to small dwellings that, like prefabricated mobile homes, are considered movable and have closed access to real estate loans with low-interest rates.
The most iconic recreational vehicles, from the VW Westy to the metallic and aerodynamic Airstream caravans, often share parcel and street in mixed-use parks – both occasional and recreational as well as full-time – and often escape the stereotype “trailer trash” to which American popular culture subjects the caravans without cheaper wheels.
A phenomenon unrelated to trailer parks extends to cities that combine abundant work in the service sector and difficult access to affordable housing for purchase or rent: opposite the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, several motor homes They park permanently, due to the impossibility of their residents to rent a house in the area.
Many of these recreational vehicles, explains Alastair Gee in The Guardian , are home to immigrant families who work in lower-paid jobs than the technological occupations associated with the area.
Nomads in search of a mountain paradise
But service workers at firms such as Facebook are not the only ones to opt for motor homes and other solutions to reduce costs: the mobility and reduced complexity of the motorhomes has stimulated their use among programmers, students and passersby who opt for greater flexibility and renounce to rent or buy an apartment or home in the most expensive residential area in the United States.
John Clary Davis illustrates in a report for Outside Magazine the new phenomenon of seasonal parking in informal camper camps around locations associated with winter sports and outdoor activities: young nomads attracted by job offers in the service sector of Localities such as Jackson Hole (Wyoming).
The phenomenon, extendable to other small towns that attract more outdoor sports enthusiasts than workers at the moment (the unemployment rate in Jackson Hole is 2.6%), such as Winthrop, in the interior of Washington State , has originated local scenes of nomadic life enthusiasts (motorhomes), small houses (static or on wheels) and other alternative housing, such as logistic containers.
Last summer, we moved through the interior of Washington and interviewed some local small-house enthusiasts; It has been a decade since pioneers like Jay Shafer walked their small wooden houses erected on trailers for the first time, and the phenomenon of recreational vehicles and small houses has become popular as a market niche with thousands of enthusiasts and “dwellers”. “In the United States and the rest of the world.
Prosperous permanent campsites?
Meanwhile, in the less glamorous world of conventional trailer parks, several initiatives try to put an end to the stigma of static caravan parks, offering their residents the possibility of buying their plot. When the owners want to get rid of the business, the residents of these communities can associate to buy communities and manage them in a residential cooperative regime, avoiding recurrent phenomena after the resignation of old family managers:
- Unjustified price increases applied by non-day-to-day corporate owners;
- Requalification of the land to build housing (which implies the expulsion of the occupants of plots);
Laws and non-governmental initiatives try to transform the circle of precariousness in which the inhabitants of these caravan districts are immersed: States like New Hampshire and Vermont force to offer the priority of purchase of the plot to their tenants, while charitable foundations in Oregon buy decadent mobile home parks to convert them into affordable housing communities.
Because of its climate, vulnerability to tropical storms and a high percentage of retirees, Florida is the State with more mobile homes parked in caravan parks with permanent residents: 850,000 units, or 11.6% of a total that exceeds 7 million homes.
Static caravans and tropical storms
The changes promoted by local administrations and insurers in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, which devastated the southern state in 1992, have increased the resilience of static caravans and caravan parks to tropical storms, explains Joseph B. Treaster in The New York Times .
Thanks to a regulation sensitive to extreme weather, the fleet of mobile homes did not suffer significant damage during the recent passage of Irma, which entered through southeast Florida in category 4 (winds at 130 miles per hour, or 209 km / h) and arrived in Naples, in the southwest of the state, in category 2 and winds at 25 mph (40 km / h).
The improved standards, which require a more resistant structure and better anchorages, make clear in each disaster the difference between the caravans assembled before 1992, weaker, and the later, which hardly suffer damage even during the passage of hurricanes. Irma violently passed through Old Bridge Village, a park with 500 mobile homes parked in North Fort Myers, but caused minor damage and no irrecoverable loss.
Stephen Braun, of the Home Town America static caravan management firm, believes that specific regulations work to reduce the impact of extreme weather events: of the 2,800 mobile homes he visited after the Irma pass, only 40 had severe damage.
While the average price of a caravan of 980 square feet (91 square meters) anchored to a plot is $ 37,100, the most sophisticated models reach half a million, while the most affordable are purchased for the price equivalent to a used car. Vanlife is not always cheaper than conventional residences.
A personal property without a mortgage loan
Traditionally erected in a wooden structure similar to the one used in the popular “tiny homes” used in vanlife moveent, the current prefabricated static caravans include reinforcements that facilitate both the useful life (including road transport on more than one occasion) and the weather resistance.
John Clary Davies dares to assert with some irony in the title of his report for Outside Magazine that, perhaps, “the new American dream is a parking space”, in reference to the new culture, halfway between need and self-sufficiency of cross-cultural roots, of nomadism in a motorhome, appealing to enthusiasts: vanlife.
The creative intersection between humble dwellings and alternative lifestyles, so linked to the culture of Frontera in the United States and to nomadic and semi-nomadic communities around the world, was not born with the prefabricated “mobile homes” ( recalls Sarah Baird in Curbed ) and the trailer parks that arose in depressed areas of the United States, much less the phenomenon – amply illustrated in this site – of small houses, motor homes and other alternative dwellings.
Until now associated with unappealing circumstances or away from the socially aspirational, small houses are popularized both by necessity and by personal choice, although part of what they promise (economic self-sufficiency, freedom) requires a contextual analysis: while most small houses used in vanlife lifestyle are considered movable property by traditional legislation, they require financing with high-interest rates and will not serve to finance a conventional home.
It is not precarious if you choose well
Five years after Kirsten Dirksen finished editing and producing the fair companies documentary on small houses and vanlife, We the Tiny House People, the popularity of these houses continues to increase, as shown by the related content on social networks and specialized television.
In all the time since, about 15 years ago, Jay Shafer – from Iowa – founded in Sonoma, Northern California, the firm (which would later sell) Tumbleweed, a decisive factor has distinguished the precariousness of part of the “mobile homes” of the aspirational phenomenon -and popular among the most disenchanted urban public with more conventional lifestyles- of small houses: the freedom to choose, the vanlife.
Indeed, living out of necessity in a small space, without appreciating its advantages or improving its disadvantages, is part of the precarious reality of many inhabitants of “trailer parks”, in a struggle to get away from life on the street and ascend -or back- to the middle class.
On the contrary, creating, modifying or restoring a small house to adapt it to one’s expectations is part of the culture known as the vanlife movement.