photos: Frustrated with high rental rates, some local residents have taken housing matters in their own hands—by living in vans. Photo: Jackie Dives.

Welcome to Van City

Living off the grid in the heart of Vancouver.

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There’s a side street somewhere in East Vancouver. It’s wholly unremarkable, a little over a kilometre in length, and only a few minutes’ walk from all the necessary amenities—parks, bars, grocery stores, and a major transit hub. It’s perched on the border of an industrial area, which means there are few houses, and no prying eyes. And there, for at least the past two years, an accidental community has sprung up, the most visible manifestation of a phenomenon taking place all over the country, a community of people who, uninspired by high rents and five-day work weeks, have chosen a different way to live: in vans and buses, modified to fit their needs.

“My original idea was to use it as a tour vehicle,” explains Conrad, 27, who lives in a modified cube van. “I’m always playing in different bands, so it made sense for me to be the one with the van. And then, it seemed obvious from there to just live in it. If I was on the road so much, why would I bother having a place? [...] I started parking here a while ago, and since then, all these other vans have started parking here, too. We’ve started this little community. It’s really cool.”

Conrad, a prolific musician and former snowboard instructor, has called the cube van home since 2010, often for nine months at a time (if the weather gets too intense, he’ll occasionally rent a place in the winter). The interior of the van has been modified to suit his needs, with collapsible bunk beds, drawers for storage, and a wood stove for heating. For half of each month, Conrad parks in the East Van neighbourhood (affectionately dubbed “Van City”, and which, in the summertime, can balloon to more than a dozen residents), cutting lawns for a local landscaping company.

For the other two weeks, he’s on the road, either for pleasure, or to play music festivals with one of his bands.
“It makes life possible,” he explains. “Rent is fucking expensive here. It’s ridiculous. That’s definitely one of the things that keeps me in the van— not having to bother with that. Six hundred dollars a month or more? I could eat for a month on less than that.”

An eight-by-twelve, four-bit room
Currently, Conrad estimates his monthly living expenses are less than $250 ($120 for insurance, and approximately $100 for gas when he’s in town). The van has cooking facilities, but it currently lacks certain other amenities, such as running water and refrigeration. However, he’s managed to sidestep those hurdles in a number of ingenious ways.

“I’ve got a gym pass,” he notes. “I just go to the gym every day to shower, so I might as well use the gym while I’m at it. So, I’m
going to the gym four or five days a week. Also, I don’t shop for more than a day or two at a time. I buy my food for the day—
usually fresh vegetables, fruit, whatever. I can cook it, or eat it right on the spot.”

For what amenities Conrad might lack, Pepe, 29, and Jenna, 26, have more than covered their bases. Living in a modified 40’
school bus, they have ample counter space, plumbing, a stove, a fridge, a skylight, bunk beds, a speaker system, and even a working shower (which doubles as a closet when not in use). A bookshelf has been attached to the wall above the driver’s seat.

The countertops are Mexican tiles they installed themselves. Although they have spent time parked at “Van City” and spend a good portion of each year in Vancouver, the pair (and their home) is also extremely well-travelled,
embarking on lengthy trips to Mexico, Central America, and other parts of Canada.

“I just always thought it was fascinating to be able to move your home wherever you want to,” Pepe explains. “You don’t have to be in one space, and you can travel wherever you want. And be expansive. And wherever you go, you’ll always have a home. You can find the best views, and not have to pay $3 million for them.”

Trailer for sale of rent
Pepe and Jenna are both avid attendees of summer festivals, including Burning Man, the annual festival of radical self-expression and self-reliance in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that draws thousands of like-minded people who, like the couple, value the do-
it-your-self enterprise of living off the grid.

This is the pair’s second bus; the first was much smaller, and, at times, housed as many as five people. They purchased the
vehicle back in 2010, on the road back from Shambhala, an annual electronic music festival held closer to home in Salmo, B.C.

Incredibly, Pepe and Jenna’s monthly costs are even lower than Conrad’s, made possible by the fact that they’ve replaced their internal combustion engine with a diesel motor, allowing the bus to run on vegetable oil— a process which requires no engine modifications whatsoever.“We have agreements with restaurants and a bunch of people,” Pepe explains, “and we pick up their veg oil. We collect their oil, we siphon it, we clean it really well. It has to be well-filtered, or else it clogs the motor.”

No phone, no pool, no pets
Conrad, Pepe, Jenna and the residents of “Van City” are hardly the only ones exploring the benefits of mobile living. While there are no firm statistics on the trend, each of them can rattle off a lengthy list of friends who have made the same choice.

The Internet is filled with testimonials from everyone from students to retirees who have decided to reduce their living space and living costs (including University of Minnesota architecture grad Hank Butitta, whose master’s thesis was the conversion of a bus into a habitable dwelling). Even Pinterest has a section on the subject.

Currently, the City of Vancouver has no explicit ban on living in one’s vehicle on a public street. The only applicable bylaw is one against parking oversized vehicles on side roads—one which, according to van dwellers, is enforced on a complaint-only basis.

However, according to all three of them, the response from the general public, when they happen to stumble upon their mobile
homes, has been nothing but positive.“Most of the time, people are really stoked,” Jenna grins. “Even little kids get really curious about it. My nephew thinks it’s really amazing that we live out of a bus. He’s like: ‘How do you do that?’ It’s kind of neat to be able to teach kids that you can live different. You don’t have to buy a condo.”

With the arrival of winter, “Van City” will shrink substantially, as many of its residents move on to other, often warmer climates. Some may head indoors when the temperature drops. For others, like Pepe and Jenna, there’s talk of Mexico. Conrad plans to spend the winter snowboarding in Revelstoke—likely renting a room for a few months to escape the sub-zero temperatures.

A hardy few may even stick it out, using heaters or heavy sleeping bags to endure the frigid temperatures. However, it seems
inevitable that, come spring, barring drastic weather or city interference, van cities will re-emerge all across town, providing
the ideal conditions for an ever-changing group of people wanting to live off the grid.

Whether Pepe, Jenna, or Conrad will return to the neighbourhood next year remains undecided; the people, like the homes they’ve
built, yearn to be on the move.

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