Personal Essay by Dakota Parks for The Argonautica
When I first decided on moving 14 hours away from my home in Illinois to study English at UWF, I had dreams of my first apartment: floor to ceiling bookcases to house my life’s library, minimalist decor, plants galore, cat perches and art scoring across the walls. Like most college students, that dream was crushed when I found out how expensive rugs are and discovered the average price of rent. While my tuition was covered by scholarships and grants, my housing was left up to minimum wage, blood, sweat, and tears. By the end of the summer 2016, I had depleted my savings account and was still without a home in Pensacola. I had simply run out of options—that is, until I found a private RV lot for rent on Craigslist.
When I tell people that an RV was my first home at age 18, they tend to give me the sideways head tilt that a dog does when they hear a funny noise. When I follow that statement up by the estimate that I have saved around $30,000 in rent alone over the last 3.5 years, the degree of the head tilt increases. While I stumbled across the concept of RV living entirely serendipitously, over the span of my undergraduate degree living in an RV has allowed me to save up enough money to study abroad in Europe, upgrade to a newer RV, purchase a new MacBook, buy a new car, and save a plethora of money.
So, you might be wondering why not a dorm or a college apartment? The decision to live in an RV hinged on my desire to live independently without roommates and avoid putting my cat up for adoption in order to live in college dorms. Additionally, as a writer, I needed my own space to transform into a cathartic work environment. If you ask any writer, we will all list 1,000 reasons why we are not in the mood to write: from uncomfortable chairs, to the wrong pants, to improper lighting—a space designed for creativity is important. I also recognized that I could not maintain my high GPA in school while working full-time, so RV living allowed me to work part-time and spend more time writing and studying.
The first questions people typically ask me are: how does your sewage work and how do you get used to living in such a small space? Now, I’ve been in plenty of messy college apartments, and I think I could ask some students the same questions. The sewage is a simple answer: every Sunday I pull a lever that empties my holding tanks into city sewage—it takes less than 5 minutes. As for space, my current RV is 35 feet in length with nearly 430 square feet of space inside. Comparing that to a typical college apartment where tenants rent a single bedroom with an attached bathroom, the space is almost the exact same. Average apartment bedrooms measure in at only 132 square feet and college apartments in Pensacola average around 800 square feet shared by two roommates. Within my small home I have a queen-sized bed, a big armoire closet, a bathroom, shower, living room, kitchen and an office.
Space is a utility that living in an RV reinforces. Whenever I shop, I have to physically ask myself, “where will this object go in my house, and do I really need it?” These conversations stop me from splurge shopping at department stores and force me to be a conscientious consumer. Whenever I buy new clothes, for example, I have to physically sort through and donate clothes I have not worn in six months, or I will have no room in my closet. Practicing the fundamental elements of minimalism, most of my possessions also have more than one function. My dining room table serves as a place to eat and do homework while housing a printer and a cat bed. My gas oven holds pots and pans when not in use and doubles as a dish drying rack and a cutting board. My outdoor shed holds large items that can’t find a place in the RV and doubles as a laundry area with portable machines.
When it comes to space, the most important spaces to invest into are outdoor spaces and dedicated spaces for your pets. Gardening and reading in my hammock outside give me fresh air whenever I am feeling stuffy or stir-crazy. I try to start every morning with coffee outside. The outdoor rugs allow me to walk barefoot and create a faux porch area. Space is limited inside, so it’s important to make your pets feel welcomed and give them their own space to get them out of your hair. My cat monopolizes my office whenever I am cooking or cleaning. In addition to housing my library, the office contains cat perches, toys, scratching posts, and a travel carrier. Crate training my cat for travel was also important to creating his own space. His crate became a safety net and the first place he goes when he is scared or overwhelmed.
“Overwhelmed” is an adjective that I use frequently, because sometimes living in an RV isn’t always fun—especially in hurricane season. RVs are simply not built or designed to be lived in, so things break, and repairs are constant. I have woken up early for college exams to find a busted water heater cap and water spewing 30 feet across my yard. Or felt a slow dripping on my forehead in the dead of night when a plastic skylight-cover finally cracked under the intense Florida heat. My personal favorite was when a leveling jack collapsed under the weight of my heavy library, and I thought it was an earthquake. Unlike an apartment, when you live in an RV, there isn’t a maintenance line you can dial—there’s only YouTube and local RV parts stores. Repairing and maintaining my RV over the years has taught me the basics of homeowning, and how to repair everything from a roof, toilet, burst pipe, and a water heater.
Living in an RV was not something that had ever crossed my mind. Growing up in the Midwest with torrents of snow and winters that mimic Florida’s dragging summers, RV living was not popular. When the decision to live full-time in an RV presented itself, I took it out of necessity not popularity. Over the years, I have witnessed the social movements of “van-life” and “RV-life” flourish across social media. Suddenly tiny houses, vans, and RVs have become hot commodities for a plethora of people disheartened by the American housing market, searching to itch their wanderlust, or simply rejecting to put roots down.
As of 2019, the RV Industry Association (RVIA) released the census that over 1 million Americans live full-time in RVs. That number is staggering and constantly influenced by popular TV shows, RV exhibition shows, and social media. In the UWF community alone, there are a handful of students that live in RVs for similar reasons as my own.
Even though you can find me covered head to toe in paint every Spring while I paint a new coat of sealant on my roof or pausing my shower while I lather up to conserve hot water, I wouldn’t trade my RV living experiences for any conventional housing options. While I recognize that it’s not a lifestyle for everyone, my RV has granted me financial stability, independence, and a lifetime of memories to cherish.
*A 2023 Update:
I lived in this 5th wheel camper for six years throughout my undergraduate and graduate degree at the University of West Floria. During that time, I immersed myself in the online community of Full Time RV dwellers and learned how to repair a roof, lay flooring, replace walls, repair plumbing and electrical, install a new water heater and air conditioner--- and generally, how to maintain a home on wheels. To this day, I still work on RV repairs for friends and family. Despite these repair costs, it is estimated that I saved around $80,000 in rent and and utilities throughout my college career--- using conservative averages of rental prices in Pensacola during that timespan.
While this lifestyle is not for everyone--- such as those who are not handy/mechanically inclined or those that do not have friends and family nearby to evacuate during tornado watches and hurricane season, it allowed me the financial freedom to work part-time putting myself through college while living independently and saving up enough money for a down payment on a house by the time I sold my RV in 2022.
As I reflect on this period in my life, I am ambivalent---- torn between the merits and realities of the popularity of tiny homes, van life and RV living, which only soared to popularity after the 2008 Housing Crisis. Nearly every state in America has been impacted by not only the lack of affordable housing but the lack of housing overall--- small, starter homes and apartments for students, entry-level professionals, low-income and working-class families. While scrappy people have gotten by living in their cars and campers, I fear for the longterm future of America.
During the course of working as a freelance journalist, I have spoken to countless housing developers who blame zoning restrictions, NIMBYism, the price of lumber, workforce shortages, and government overreach for the lack of incentive to build affordable housing.
I have also spoken with developers of tiny home communities throughout the state of Florida. When I asked a particular developer about the comp comparison between 250 sq. ft. tiny home communities vs affordable apartment complexes, I was informed there was no comp difference. In this scenario, the developers chose tiny homes over an apartment complex because they didn't want a, quote, "low-income apartment complex with rap music, bars on the windows and crying babies." Meaning, these developers are riding on the shirt tails of this tiny home trend, building these tiny homes for single mothers and children as well homeless people as a housing first model while trying to package poverty into a cute little box. Not to mention, the majority of these homes, even when built on a concrete pad, are not rated for hurricane and tornado season--- which will only increase in intensity in the coming years in the face of climate change.
All of this to say, I am a big advocate for living beneath your means and embracing tiny living as a lifestyle to achieve financial freedom; however, humans deserve housing at every income level. Tiny living is not a solution to poverty or to the housing crisis.