Unquestionable there are homeless individuals and families living in camp trailers, campers and RVs across the nation and in Wallowa County.
RV dealers in Portland have reported increasing number of families coming in search of RVs under $10,000 to use as housing.
Seattle opened two “safe lots” for mobile units with trash pickup and electricity for 100 individuals and families living in RVs and cars.
If living in an RV is considered homelessness, Wallowa County has a homelessness problem. But many individuals living in RVs here are the citizens everyone says are needed to make the economy work –– working individuals who first found employment in the county then moved here. Upon arrival, they discovered that affordable housing was short, and they were forced to remain in their RVs while they saved and searched. Some gave up, quit their jobs and moved out.
“Nurses get up here and have a mid-level income, and it’s not quite enough to support a family and buy a home,” said Brian Walker, co-owner of the 30-space Log House RV Park and Campground on Enterprise’s northern edge. “They are a two-income family, but when they get up here, they can’t find viable employment for their spouse. I’ve had them come here on a contract with the hopes of long-term residency, but there’s no work for the husband. They end up not staying in the area.”
Some hold on through a winter. Walker has 16 full-time residents and 14 spaces allotted for temporary campers. In Wallowa, Wallowa River RV Park on Whiskey Creek Road, offers 22 spaces and allows “five or six” campers to stay through the winter, according to co-owner Debra Riverman. It’s a common practice for similar operations, a way to keep the bills paid during the winter season.
Among those who live longer-term at Wallowa River RV Park camp is a young couple saving to buy or rent a house. Another camp spot is rented by an Enterprise Police Officer looking for the same thing.
Spots at Log Cabin are also occupied by professionals — some of whom gave up the search for a house and purchased an upgraded RV to live in more or less permanently.
“I have people in RVs who are looking for homes to purchase and they can’t find anything that’s remotely reasonable,” Walker said. “That’s one of the issues our renters have. They can’t find anything that’s even available to rent within their finances. I’ve had people ... who couldn’t afford even an apartment. If they’re trying to rent an apartment because they like apartment living, it can be a year before they get into a nicer apartment.”
But there is also a third group of RVers wintering in RV parks with the intent to remain full-time in the county –– retirees with adequate income.
Many of these financially secure individuals live on the road for years, but at some point they discover their energy and physical limitations have made constant setting up and moving out too difficult. They begin looking for a home base.
Based on the successful models of other retirement communities, once a retiree has chose their home base, many are be pleased to look at well-maintained age-restricted RV parks and trailer and modular home communities. They not only welcome, but require, well-written covenants, conditions and restrictions (CCRs). They look for communities with groundskeepers, laundry rooms, “toy” storage, and other amenities.
Often this category of retiree will live in their RV while searching for land — just as the working class folks are doing.
Or they may end up staying in the RV park permanently if they can find a spot. Walker has one such “camper” in his park on a larger lot and is developing a space for one of his professional-worker campers. The people who want the larger spaces want more greenery, perhaps a small flower garden and a larger parking space.
Shane Holly, manager of the 90-unit La Grande Rendezvous RV Resort, said he expects the full-time resident population in RV resorts to boom in the next five years.
“Tiny homes are going to become very popular because people can’t afford to go buy a home or, if they can, don’t want the financial responsibility of upkeep on a larger home,” he said. “They’re going to purchase these tiny homes and set them up in RV parks like this and use them as a home or (if they are retired) a base from which they go out. The snowbirds don’t want to pay for the upkeep on a large home they only live in for four to six months of the year. I think tiny houses are going to be a huge thing in the next five years.”
Already Holly’s park is more than half-full of folks who will stay the winter. He generally fills 70 of the 90 spaces in the summer and has a population of 40 in the winter.
Some are retirees with incomes still looking for the right home base, some residents are on limited incomes or Social Security Disability and the park is what they can afford, and some are working folks looking to purchase a home or find a rental.
“(Working people) are really having a hard time finding places to rent or buy,” Holly said. “It’s a big reason why they are here. Housing prices have gone up — because they can.”
Downsizing to live it up: RV living has many facets
Terry and Ruth Mishler, both 71, spent a lifetime working in jobs they enjoyed in a location they didn’t love.
“We worked in Houston, Texas, to meet our retirement needs,” Terry said.
They were involved in the aircraft industry, Ruth as a ticket-taker for a major airline and Terry as a turbo-prop pilot for Georgia Pacific and Louisiana and an aircraft power plant mechanic with Inspection Authorization credentials.
The couple also ran a contract maintenance business for central American airlines. They had long professional lives, did well financially and were well-traveled.
And like a lot of 21st century retirees they’ve been living “on the road” in various iterations of the RV since retirement.
They camped out of a Model A car, they camped in a big bumper-pull trailer, they purchased a smaller bumper-pull trailer and they finally settled on a 38x8-foot bath-and-a-half, four slide-out, luxury fifth-wheel, which they park at Wallowa River RV in Wallowa.
From there, they and their dog “Skeli” take short trips with a smaller 20-foot trailer behind the truck or on their Harley Davidson motorcycles with sidecars.
“We’re trailer trash,” Terry said, in an ironic play on both out-of-dated views some have of individuals who live in RVs and acknowledgment of the stack of “toys” that the traveling retired trail along with them.
The Mishlers are members of a new and growing group of people — retired folk looking to set up a base-camp in paradise from which to continue traveling until they no longer can.
The stick-built home in the country or subdivision was ideal when their goals were to stay put and build careers and raise a family. Now, downsizing is sensible, but given their health, interests and lengthy list of toys, cocooning is not.
The stories have been told in the New York Times and Forbes among other national media and featured in AARP Magazine. And their numbers will continue to grow as the Baby Boom population reaches retirement age.
Retirees come in many styles, from the folks who purchase 13x30-foot vintage trailers from the ‘50s and ‘60s to those, like the Mishlers, who sink a good portion of their home-sales income into a luxury “movable base camp.”
RV parks also come in many styles from mega-camps with 18-hole golf courses, swimming pools, club houses, fitness centers, banquet rooms, cafes and more to gravel spaces baking in the hot sun.
The Mishlers, for instance, are invested in the Sutherlin, Ore. SKE Timber Valley Park — a luxurious 206-unit 55+ RV Co-op affiliated with the Escapees RV Club. It has very strong CCRs, Terry said, and that was important to them.
They have also stayed at Crown Villa Bend — ‘a very expensive place,” Ruth said. Monthly rent there began at $600 per month in the winter and rose to $1,200 to $1,600 a month in the summer. They have “toy trailers” and camp trailers in storage in Bend, La Grande and Corvallis. Their travels included not only moving the big trailer to a new spot, but making two and sometimes three other trips ferrying toy trailers and other items to the new home base.
Then, they visited Wallowa County.
“When I drove into Wallowa County, I said, ‘Look at this place! And we never heard of it!’ I thought, ‘this is the land of milk and honey,’” said Terry.
The Mishlers have been shopping for land for a year now. They’ve made several offers on property, but are still looking for the right place.
In the meantime, they have exactly what most people who move to Wallowa County need: An economical way station. At Wallowa River RV, they pay $400 a month for a well-maintained green space for their RV and get their Internet, cable television and garbage service thrown in. The pristine Wallowa River rushes along the edge of the campground under willows; Tick Hill looms above and offers challenging hiking; the RV hosts are available and often outside patrolling the park, planting flowers and maintaining the greenery; and everything the couple needs is walking distance away in the town of Wallowa.
Wallowa County wins as well. The Mishlers contribute to the economy and the culture.
“We eat out a lot,” Terry said. “We buy most of our groceries in the county, our propane, other services and I make sure I fill up at Goebel’s gas station before I head out on a trip. We want to support the local economy.”