B.C. municipalities struggle with what to do with RV dwellers

Standing by the side of his RV in a bright blue T-shirt, Donald (Gator) Varnador proudly shows off his manicured garden.

"I hear people always talking about more affordable housing. Well, this is affordable housing."

Gator, a senior, lives in the Riverbend Cottage and RV Resort just outside Parksville on Vancouver Island.

He says his meagre pension isn't enough to keep up with the price of fuel, food, and everything else. So, about a year ago, he and his wife parked their RV here permanently.

The Peace Arch RV Park in Surrey has more than 300 units to accommodate RVs.
RV parks in B.C. are increasingly home to long-term residents who can't afford to live anywhere else. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As British Columbia's housing crisis continues, an ever-growing number of people, many of them seniors like Gator, are using recreational vehicles and tiny homes as permanent housing.

And municipalities and districts are struggling to balance supporting people who might otherwise end up living on the street with safety and other concerns, including provincewide building codes that restrict the use of RVs as a full-time residence.

In Vancouver, Squamish and Surrey, elected leaders have wrestled for years with RV dwellers in campgrounds and on city streets. Last fall in the Okanagan, councillors in Vernon voted to allow RVs on Agricultural Land Reserve properties.

The Dogwood Campground and RV park in Surrey, B.C., currently houses about 80 long-term residents.
RVs provide an affordable home for people who may otherwise end up on the street. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Parksville falls under the jurisdiction of the Regional District of Nanaimo, which recently came up against fierce opposition while trying to update one of its bylaws to include a six-month limit on RV stays in campgrounds and resorts.

District director Leanne Salter says the uproar was no surprise, given the sharp increase in the region's cost of living.

"The future is RVs and tiny homes," Salter said.

"Whether we like them or not, we're going to have to accept that this is happening."

The district voted to temporarily not enforce the bylaw until staff determines which direction to take long-term.

Intimidation tactics

Paul Lagace, a poverty law advocate who frequently works with people living in RVs, says many local governments have bylaws limiting RV stays — harking back to a time when campgrounds and resorts were mostly just for tourists.

But in Lagace's experience, these days most spots in RV parks are taken up by long-term residents — many of them seniors on fixed incomes.

He says keeping the time limit on the books can be problematic, even if it's not enforced.

Recreational vehicles, like those pictured here in a file photo, are not permitted to be used for residential use in Alert Bay, B.C.
The province says recreational vehicles are not meant to be permanent homes. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

"Some RV park owners use this as an intimidation tactic," Lagace told All Points West host Jason D'Souza, adding that owners sometimes use it to threaten to evict residents.

Such was the case a few years ago at an RV park in Surrey, even though the city explicitly said it wouldn't enforce its six-month limit.

Salter agrees that RVs have become permanent homes for many. But she says the reality is that, like all regions in B.C., the Regional District of Nanaimo is bound by provincial building bylaws.

Safety concerns

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon declined an interview with CBC News, but in a written statement he acknowledged that many are "turning to alternative housing options" to access the growing problem of affordable housing.

Kahlon says there is no minimum size for a home in the B.C. Building Code, but long-term use of RVs and tiny homes on wheels is a different matter.

"Mobile and recreational vehicles have been developed for temporary occupation and do not address all the health and safety concerns that come with permanent occupation," the minister said.

Kahlon says air, water and septic systems on RVs are usually designed for temporary use and could fail and pose health risks to occupants and the environment if used long-term.

It's up to local governments to establish time limits on how long an RV can be occupied while they're parked, Kahlon says. Currently, the province is "not exploring changing or adjusting land use laws or local permitting around RVs."

The minister points out that some local governments have used temporary use permits to allow RVs in some areas, as was the case in Vernon last fall.

Updated guidelines

In a somewhat contradictory move, in 2020, the province updated its housing guidelines to clarify that recreational vehicles can count as permanent homes in an RV park or campground — even if they violate local bylaws.

The update meant that those who live in them may be protected by provincial tenancy laws.

Alexandra Flynn, a UBC law professor and director of the university's Housing Research Collaborative, says RV dwellers present a tricky situation for officials on all levels.

"It is not a sustainable long-term development to just say, well, people are living in their vehicles, and we're good," Flynn said.

The Peace Arch RV Park in Surrey, B.C., has more than 300 RV spots, 180 currently occupied by long-term tenants.
Experts say that many people living in RV parks in B.C. are seniors on fixed incomes. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

On a provincial level, the B.C. Building Code does come into play to determine if a domicile is safe to be inhabited, she says.

But given the current situation, municipalities can do more to support people living in RVs by offering them a place to park and facilities like bathrooms and wash-up areas.

Flynn doesn't see RVs as a long-term solution to the fundamental issue causing people to live in them.

"The fundamental issue is a lack of adequate housing. And so when there isn't adequate housing, people are going to live wherever they can."