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Despite Instagram Fame, Van Life Remained Static Over Last Decade


Millions of Americans have been tempted by the romance of alternative housing arrangements such as a van, boat or recreational vehicle. The New York Post touts living on the water as “a terrific adventure.” The RV Industry Association claims 1 million Americans live in recreational vehicles. Instagram users have posted the hashtag #vanlife almost 6 million times.

An analysis of Census data by Social Explorer, however, suggests that hitting the open road (or the high seas) in search of a more fulfilling and less stressful housing experience may be more wishful thinking than reality. According to the 2013-17 American Community Survey, fewer than 115,000 households report living in a van, boat, or RV – and that number has barely budged during the last decade.

Visualize and analyze households report living in a van, boat, or RV on the MSA level. Click here to explore further.

Although a 2017 New Yorker examination of the trend made fun of the van trend in particular by noting its “twee escapism,” the magazine acknowledged that young people were attracted to vans because of “a trend born out of the recent recession,” or the increasing burdens of college debt and housing prices on the Millennial generation.

The alternative shelters make up more than 1 percent of housing in only 10 metro areas, spread around five weather-friendly states. Not surprisingly, Arizona is host to two of the hotspots for nomads – The border city of Yuma has the highest concentration of van, boat, and RV dwellers in the nation, with 2.1 percent of its housing units consisting of the alternative units, and Payson, about halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff, has the 10th-highest concentration at 1 percent.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Oregon included two metros among the top three places for alternative housing units. Almost two-thirds of households in the seaside city of Brookings, about five miles north of the California border, are vans, boats, or RVs. More than 1.5 percent of households in the central Oregon city of Prineville consist of alternative dwellings, the third-highest percentage in the nation. Although Indiana remains the capital of RV production by a wide margin, Oregon was responsible for manufacturing almost 25,000 recreational vehicles in 2017, according to a recent survey.

Florida boasted the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-highest concentrations of van, boat, and RV dwellers in the nation, according to the Social Explorer analysis. All three south-central Florida cities were located away from the coast. About 1.4 percent of households in Wauchula, about 75 miles southeast of Tampa; 1.3 percent of households in Arcadia, about 30 miles south of Wauchula; and 1.2 percent of households in Okeechobee.

The Mojave desert city of Pahrump, Nev., ranked seventh for alternative dwellings; it was trailed by Hobbs, N.M., a Texas border town that’s heavily reliant upon the oil and gas industry, and Deming, a southwestern New Mexico city that’s achieved recent notoriety as the home for thousands of migrants fleeing violence in Central America.

The Census Bureau found no one living in vans, boats, or RVs in 176 of 933 metropolitan or micropolitan areas. The most heavily populated places with no alternative residences included Atlantic City, N.J. (the state banned houseboats in 1985); Appleton, Wisc.; and Blacksburg, Va.

Author: Frank Bass

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