When I’m mobile

Reno’s RV lifers show camping can be a simple, cheap housing option

The new homestead: RVs serve as homes for some, and often by choice, not economic necessity.

The new homestead: RVs serve as homes for some, and often by choice, not economic necessity.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Friday, warm summer evening. A Reno tech engineer relaxes in his yard after work. Beer in hand. At his feet, a Jack Russell terrier named Toby chews on a red ball.

A retired neighbor joins him in the shade of an elm tree between their homes. She smokes a cigarette and sips a Mountain Dew.

The two have been neighbors and friends for a couple of years.

“She watches Toby while I’m at work,” explains Steve Porter, 53.

“And I call him when I need my propane refilled,” says Connie McGraw, 67.

Propane and friendly neighbors are key components to living year-round in recreational vehicles.

Both McGraw and Porter make homes out of campers less than 30 feet in length. These rigs are not mobile homes or modular dwellings. They’re RVs designed for short-term excursions.

The news that many Nevadans make homes in the cramped quarters of recreational vehicles could be grist for another damn-the-economy story. Though it’s not the case with McGraw and Porter, some folks are losing homes and trying to survive in small RVs until they can get into apartments or houses.

This is not that tragic tale. Many people living in Reno’s RV parks are far from miserable at the turns their lives have taken. They say RVs are a satisfying and inexpensive housing alternative. Their lives are simpler. Needs fewer. Communities stronger.

“This is a good way to live,” Porter says.

He and McGraw rent spaces at Bonanza Terrace RV Park north of downtown Reno. It’s not a mobile home park, though there’s one nearby. The RV park is designed for campers on the go. Nightly rates are $34. But like most RV parks in Northern Nevada, Bonanza also offers a monthly rate. For $400, full-time campers get a gravel parking pad, water and sewer hook-ups, cable TV and wireless internet. Pets are extra.

Pads at Bonanza are spacious, relative to some RV parks, with panoramic mountain views. Though the park gets busy during events like Hot August Nights, it’s generally peaceful.

“I enjoy living in a place like this,” Porter says. “There’s no pressure. Low stress. And I’m saving money.”

McGraw ended up living at an RV park in Reno after a trip here to visit her son. Her neck went out. She’d been having troubles with spinal disc disease. She entered a Reno hospital for the first of what would be three surgeries. That was two years ago. She has not yet fully recovered.

McGraw performs physical therapy exercises in front of her kitchen sink—nearly the only free space in her rig.

“I didn’t choose this,” McGraw says. But she’s making the best of it. Practically every inch of her camper contains art, photographs and memorabilia. McGraw has worked as a graphic artist, a truck driver and a bartender.

She shows off a portfolio of drawings and design work from the 15 years she spent as art director at a national greeting card company. Above her desk, framed African art. Near her bed, photos of her children and a small TV. In her living area, a Native American necklace with a bear claw. A bowl of rocks collected from the desert. Tapestries. Ornamental lights.

“My whole life is all right here,” she says.

A shelving unit contains books about nature and animals.

“I had 2,000 pounds of books,” McGraw says. “These are the ones I had to keep.”

Next door, Porter has customized the interior of his 28-foot King of the Road, which is pushing 20 years old. The built-in couch was replaced with a desk, now covered with electronic circuitry and computer gear. His parakeet, Obi, (as in Wan Kenobi) lives in a cabinet over the television. Porter tore out a dining table and benches, replacing them with something he finds more useful.

“How many trailers have a Barcalounger?” he asks.

After his second divorce, Porter decided to move into this RV, which he already owned.

“You get married and divorced, you lose a lot of stuff,” he says. “Now I can live on $800 a month. I have no bills. If I can’t afford it, I don’t buy it.”

Frugal living allows Porter to save money that he plans to spend on a newer RV. Then he’ll hit the road and perhaps revisit national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, explore the East Coast and visit family members who live all over the nation.

After his planned travels, Porter predicts a return to Reno to park his newer trailer back under the elm tree at Bonanza Terrace RV.

“This is the best place in the park,” he says. ‘We can hang out here, and I don’t have to worry about anyone running over my little dog. I’m comfortable. I love living like this.”

Connie McGraw: “My whole life is right here.”

Photo By Deidre Pike

Low-cost housing crisis

“It’s definitely a lifestyle that you have to get accustomed to—if you moved from a house,” says Samantha Vick, Reno RV Park manager.

Simply put, most full-time park residents are trying to—or need to—live on the cheap. The monthly rate at Reno RV is $490, which includes water, sewer and electric hook-ups—along with cable TV and wireless Internet.

“It’s cheaper than living in an apartment,” Vick says. “Some have lived here for years and years.”

She knows a handful of park residents who’ve lost houses to foreclosures.

“But they’re pretty private about that,” Vick says.

It’s hardly surprising, given Nevada’s growing joblessness, that low-cost housing is in short supply while demand for housing assistance runs high.

In past years, the Reno Housing Authority placed people seeking housing assistance on its waiting list. Recently, there’ve been as many as 3,000 names on the list, says David Morton, RHA executive director. The agency isn’t taking more applicants.

“Frankly, right now our waiting list is closed,” Morton says. “We have so many people on the waiting list that it’s been closed for the past six months.”

The RHA can only place about 20 to 30 new applicants monthly. At this rate, placing 3,000 applicants would take nearly a decade.

The agency has no provisions for assisting full-time RV park residents, though Morton says the RHA has about 10 mobile home dwellers on its rolls.

“Our housing is geared to permanent structures,” Morton says.

What’s the difference?

Mobile or manufactured homes are placed on foundations on residential lots or in trailer parks. As such, they meet the RHA’s housing quality standards. RVs are not constructed for year-round living.

While full-time RV living is “certainly an option” for some people, Morton can’t imagine it being an ideal choice. Morton has run across people living in recreational vehicles on U.S. Forest Service land in northern California. He also knows of one man who lives in Reno in an RV that’s parked at various places around town, including the Goodwill parking lot.

“He visits one of our tenants, probably uses the shower,” Morton says. “He’s not there regularly, so we look the other way.”

Morton acknowledges a stark difference between people affluent enough to buy an RV and travel the country and those who’ve run out of choices.

“It’s unfortunate if people are forced into this,” he says.

In Austin, Texas, a plan is in the works to develop an RV park to house the homeless. An advocacy group called Mobile Loaves and Fishes hopes to fund the project through private donations. The group would purchase FEMA trailers left over from Hurricane Katrina.

It’s unlikely such a project would be considered in Reno, Morton says. However, he recently visited a mobile home park in Las Vegas built to provide low-cost housing.

“It was an extraordinary place,” he says. “Some [mobile home parks] are rather grungy. For local government, that doesn’t appeal to them. But if properly maintained, it could be very positive.”

Louis Suhy went from multiple home ownerships (the stable, foundation kind) to living in an RV.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Close-knit communities

It’s lunchtime at the River’s Edge RV Park in Sparks. Melinda Mills, a medical support assistant at the VA hospital, and her daughter Michelle dine on colorful plated salads in the shade of an awning between parked RVs. Potted petunias hang from ornate metal holders. A square garden plot is framed with wood.

The garden was at the RV site when Melinda and her husband, James, moved in two and a half years ago. This year, she planted flowers.

“You can plant vegetables if you want,” she says. “You can do as you want here.”

In 2007, the last of Melinda and James Mills’ children moved out of the family’s Fernley home. Their 1,800-square-foot nest empty, Melinda decided it was time for a change. The couple now lives in a 36-foot rig with “all the comforts of home,” as Melinda puts it. There’s a stacked washer and dryer inside and a freezer outside the front door. The Mills’ yard and home are immaculate, with well-appointed furnishings from floral couch to a neat computer desk.

“When my daughter decided she wasn’t going to live with us, we decided to leave our house,” Melinda says. “I left behind my koi pond. I left everything. … And I love it.”

James is a long-haul truck driver. Melinda’s job is a 10-minute drive or a 35-minute walk. Sometimes she rides her bike.

What Melinda likes best about living at River’s Edge is the close-knit community. She points out several rows of RVs, all with full-time inhabitants. One neighbor has lived at the River’s Edge for 16 years.

“It’s a relaxing atmosphere,” Melinda says. “And I can go away, and my neighbors will watch my yard, water my plants and my garden.”

She observes that the park’s population of full-time residents is rising, probably because of the economy. But she does not view the option as a grim one. The only drawback to full-time RV living that Mills can think of is a lack of space. The couple rents a storage unit for off-season items and memorabilia.

Folks shouldn’t equate moving into an RV with living a lower quality life.

“This is better living,” Mills says. “It’s plenty for me.

RV as Plan B

Just a few years ago, buying an RV as a precaution against lost job or home foreclosure might have sounded absurd. Now it seems a reasonable back-up plan to some. The website GotTrouble.com offers tips on investing in a recreational vehicle as a primary residence.

“If you’re lucky enough to still have a small savings, you might find that spending your money on a used recreational vehicle is your best option to avoid being homeless,” the site’s content suggests. “For those people facing the prospect of bankruptcy, foreclosure or impending homelessness, finding a comfortable home on wheels for as little as $15,000 might be the best option.”

Most full-time RVers would agree that buying a brand new RV is rarely a good move. Campers depreciate quickly and dramatically. Bargains can be found, however, on used RVs. One full-time Reno RVer sold a house in California and bought for $10,000 a 34-foot, 6-year-old trailer with space-enhancing slide-outs. Though it was slightly damaged, a modest investment in new flooring and about 50 hours of scrubbing transformed the camper into a clean, enviable living space.

As of this writing, RVs for sale locally on Craigslist range from an $800 “Burning Man Special” (18-foot “like new” Komfort built in 1979) to a luxurious $64,999 Safari Zanzibar motor home with “beautiful dark wood cabinets” and two slide-outs to increase the RV’s width when parked.

Increased interest in used RVs turns out to be an economic boon for some.

“A new day is dawning for RV manufacturers and RV park owners,” writes Carla Land in a publication for RV enthusiasts. “What was once considered a luxury retirement or family vacation investment may soon become the primary home investment for thousands as the housing market crash pushes people into discovering alternative living situations.”

In her article “RV Living Full Time – Because of the Economy?” Land refers to this otherwise dire turn of events as a “pleasant surprise” for RV owners who should see the resale value of their RVs rise.

It’s not great news for those in financial trouble seeking to buy an RV for a primary residence.

Melinda Mills and daughter Michelle, whose departure from the nest prompted her mother to turn to RV living.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Thinking like Thoreau

Nowadays Keystone RV park manager Glenda Wallace lives on the grounds of the park, behind the office. She’s also spent 10 years raising two daughters in a 34-foot RV.

“We made it just fine,” she says. “The girls would go to school and come home. Cozy? Yes, it was.”

About half of the 104 campsites at Keystone RV are rented to full-time residents. That number hasn’t grown lately, Wallace says, because some full-time residents—construction workers and casino employees, in particular—have left Reno to find work elsewhere.

The monthly rate at Keystone is $375, which includes water and sewer hook-ups, cable TV and wireless Internet. Residents pay electric bills of around $25 to $55 per month. Dogs under 20 pounds are OK. RVs built before 1990 aren’t OK. Residents aren’t encouraged to landscape or make yards near their rigs.

“We want it to look like an RV park,” Wallace says. “We don’t let people leave a lot of stuff out.”

That hasn’t stopped one resident from creating a garden with potted flowers, vegetables and about two dozen thriving tomato plants next to his trailer.

Wallace can see this garden from the office.

“It’s really not allowed,” she says. “But he’s been here for 16 years. It’s his little domain right there.”

Though it’s right off West Fourth Street, Keystone is set back enough to have a secluded feel.

“We’re a friendly park,” Wallace says. “It’s quiet. People keep to themselves. … No one knows we’re here unless they’re looking for us.”

Parked full-time at Keystone RV is a well-traveled Vietnam veteran. He’s been to London, Amsterdam, Nova Scotia and all over the United States. He’s worked in Iraq and Kuwait. He’s owned houses in Pennsylvania and Florida—five of ’em.

“Not all at once, though,” says Louis R. Suhy Sr., smiling.

He bought an Airstream about 20 years ago when he was an itinerant crane operator for construction firms building power plants. He lived in it, moving from job to job. When he wasn’t on a job, he’d put the Airstream in storage. Then a hurricane hit his house in Florida. His son, who lives in Reno, recommended a move to Northern Nevada.

Suhy’s glad he took his son’s advice.

“Northern Nevada is 10 times better than Florida,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”

Suhy enjoys the freedom that comes from full-time RV living.

“You ever try dragging an apartment around on wheels?” he asks. “Or a house? You’d need a really big truck.”

That said, he admits to cabin fever as soon as the weather turns cold. He’s spent two winters in the Airstream.

“After the first couple of weeks, you’re saying ‘I need more room!’”

It works for Suhy, he says, because he’s single.

“If you don’t have a partner, it’s OK,” he says. “If you do have a partner, you have to make sure you’re both up to it, or the claustrophobia will get to you.”

Suhy sums up RV living in a single word: simple. At age 62, he says he’s realized that he does not need a lot of things.

“A lawnmower? Don’t need it. I don’t need to paint a house. I don’t need a ladder to climb up on the roof. It’s a low-maintenance life.”

His utility bills are a fraction of what they were in a house. Not having a garage means not filling a garage with things.

“Every house I owned, I filled up the garage with stuff I didn’t need,” he says, “but I thought I needed it.”

Now he has one cedar-lined closet for his clothes. If he buys a shirt, he gets rid of a shirt. Building another closet is not an option.

“You can’t add on here, though some people want to,” he says.

His attitudes about living simply and living well, he says, date back to the experience of his father, a Pennsylvania steel worker who never left his hometown of West Aliquippa.

“Dad talked about retiring his whole life,” Suhy says. “Dad retired at age 66 and died before his 67th birthday. I said I’d never let that happen to me.”

His parents owned their home. But Suhy feels his dad never got a chance to break the repetitious cycle of life. Suhy sees others entrapped by the same repetition—job, money, house, possessions.

“You got to be willing to let it go,” Suhy says. “Stop filling the garage up.”

He sold his Jeep. Now he tools around on his 1500-cc Suzuki Full Dresser. He goes bowling when he wants. He can travel—or not travel. For now, he’s going to see what it’s like to stay put.

“I guess living in an RV ain’t that bad,” Suhy says.