Could van life be one solution to Eagle County’s affordable housing crisis?
Locally-based Dave & Matt Vans is looking to pilot a program that would give businesses a new way to house employees — in a van, but not one down by the river
Gypsum business Dave & Matt Vans was founded in January 2019 and had one simple mission: to make van life accessible. And as Eagle County’s affordable housing crisis has become increasingly dire for local business owners and employees, the founders felt there was another way to extend their mission.
“Our mission has come through from the lens of everything from affordable housing to your standard look at van life, which is an outdoor adventure vehicle,” said Matt Felser, co-founder of Dave & Matt Vans. “The one thing we’ve always attached to and that’s come through in what we do is the affordable housing piece: Providing an alternative way to solve a lot of the problems that we see on a daily basis.”
As the housing crisis in Eagle County and neighboring counties has grown, Felser said the company started to allocate resources toward researching the crisis and looking for ways its company could provide a creative solution here in the valley.
The need for these creative solutions is only growing as more and more local businesses struggle to attract and retain employees.
“In the case of trying to hire in the valley, there’s no options for people to even come to the valley at this point,” said Fred Searles, the head brewer at Bonfire Brewing in Eagle who has lived in a van for nearly two years. “I can hire seven people right now, probably five people comfortably, for Bonfire and can’t get them because of housing. I just happen to be lucky enough to have the van or I wouldn’t be here either, truthfully.”
The idea that vans are an affordable housing solution is one that Felser and his team hope to build upon.
As the team at Dave & Matt Vans began to dig in to possible solutions, they became aware of a pilot program launched in Summit County called Good Bridge Community. The program, which was built in cooperation with a number of local faith organizations, is meant to provide a safer and more supportive environment for individuals living in their vehicles by allowing individuals to utilize the Summit County Interfaith Council’s parking lots at night.
Felser said the program stood out, and he saw the potential to create a similar program in Eagle County, using parking from local business. This way, it removes the onus on the town to allocate resources and places it on businesses that already have empty lots at night.
“We’d certainly like to start small and obviously would love to be participants and use our lot to house our employees,” Felser said. “The goal would be to get two other businesses that are interested,” adding that they have had positive conversations with Bonfire Brewing, Eagle Climbing and Fitness and Endorphin in Eagle.
Interested businesses would oversee the program at their own business, offering overnight parking in their lots to existing and prospective employees as a housing alternative. This could work on multiple levels, Felser said. If the employee already has a van, they would then have a safe place to park and if they don’t, he foresees Dave & Matt Vans helping out.
“We’d love to help support the program by either leasing vehicles to the businesses or selling them to the business in a finance program that we have,” Felser said. “We can do either a lease program or a finance program as low as $650 a month is what it would be. Then, that employer could do with it what they want; they can rent it to an employee, they can sell it to an employee from there. It’s up to them, we just want to make sure we have a viable entry point in terms of price.”
The affordability of van life
There are a variety of reasons that people are choosing to live in their vans, ranging everywhere from necessity to adventure to the appeal of the digital nomad lifestyle, made even more appealing by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, with the average Eagle County rents soaring above what’s affordable for many employees, those choosing to live in a van here are doing it so they can actually afford and live the coveted Eagle County lifestyle.
Juan La Rosa, a senior build technician at Dave & Matt Vans, is about to move from an apartment in Gypsum to a van, something he has long dreamed about doing. While he is most looking forward to the freedom it will allow him, he is also excited about the additional cost savings.
“You’re living rent free [once you pay off the vehicle], you’re also harnessing most of your electricity from the sun with the solar panels so you don’t pay any electric bills, a little bit will be coming from your gas and your vehicle but it’s very minimal,” La Rosa said.
Penny Harte, another Dave & Matt build technician, said that living in her van has afforded her the ability to save money, but also spend it.
“It allows me to not stress about money because I’m not putting 50% of it toward one thing: rent, into the abyss, each month,” Harte said. Without the van, Harte might not be able to do the activities that drew her — and most employees — here in the first place.
For Searles at Bonfire, not only does it allow him the ability to travel and explore with ease and speed, it also helps him save. Something that when rent rose to $2,600 for a two-bedroom in Minturn, wasn’t feasible.
“I’m paying toward something instead of giving that money away. I’ve been able to save a lot of money as well. Living in a van is not necessarily cheaper than living in a house but it’s cheaper than living in a house here,” Searles said.
However, even with the benefits, living in a van does have its challenges. Felser described the current conditions as a “black market.”
“[Living in a van is] definitely a thing that is happening but there’s no rhyme or reason to it, there’s no legitimacy to it,” Felser said. “From a town perspective, and if they continue to not put in policy in place, it’s just going to continue to grow and be the black market, which is fine. But we certainly see a lot of opportunity to harness it and make it something that is part of the community as with so many other cool things in the area.”
During the summer, those living in their van have their choice from several options, including Bureau of Land Management land, public land, national forest land — all of which have 14-day limits for parking. On National Forest Service land, authorization is required for living in a van or residence on the land. During the winter, however, it’s another story. Not only do van livers have to contend with colder weather, but also the options for parking are extremely limited.
“It has its ups and downs for sure, in the winter time around here finding places to go is very difficult,” Searles said. “Overall, it’s not a bad experience, but we could definitely do better.”
This is where the pilot program could potentially help.
“Everybody sees vans all around, it’s very popular and yet we have all these rules and laws that prevent us from safely parking in different places,” La Rosa said, adding that the program could also “open up the conversation and allow people to see it more, to normalize it a little bit more, which would in turn bring more business to the local businesses.”
“Having a safe place to park the van would be huge and it would help give options to employees instead of the option being just to leave and making this situation that we have in the valley even worse than it is now, which it is on trajectory to be,” Searles said. “I think it does have a lot of potential if we can get the people on board to support us and to support it.”
Seeking municipal support
This support will largely be needed from local governments, according to Felser. Currently, however, businesses have restrictions — either stipulated by leases or city/county ordinances — on allowing parking overnight in their lots.
“It comes down to acceptance from local government and then acceptance from business. We’ve seen positive responses from businesses and now it’s a matter of the government giving us the approval,” Felser said, adding that they have started to reach out to the Gypsum, Eagle and Eagle County governments to float the idea.
The company wouldn’t be looking for monetary or resource support, but instead would be seeking special ordinances for each business to be able to allow overnight parking.
“County and town code only need small tweaks that could have an immensely positive effect on people living in vans on private property. To us this is something that, particularly in this climate, that seems worth pursuing,” Felser said.
According to Eagle County’s Communications Manager Justin Patrick, there has been no formal development yet to accommodate the company’s proposal.
“Eagle County values creative solutions to the affordable housing challenge and is open to innovative solutions, but the conversation between Dave and Matt’s Vans and the county would need to evolve into a more formal capacity,” Patrick wrote in an email. He added that it is possible the county commissioners would be willing to change the current land-use regulations that limit this ability currently.
Similarly, the towns of Eagle and Gypsum expressed a desire for more formal conversations about the proposal and its possible implications.
“The town supports our business community and will do our best to address their needs if there is a desire for a policy change to allow for this program. It is up to the community and the town’s policy makers to determine on the next steps for a pilot program,” wrote Brandy Reitter, the town manager for Eagle, in an email.
Not for everyone
An additional hurdle that the program might have is that van life isn’t necessarily for everyone.
“I do admit that not everyone would be willing or able to move into a van, it’s not for everyone,” La Rosa said. “I do think it definitely diversifies the type of people that visit town and the type of people that live in town and have the ability to live here. It can be super affordable and if you have those avenues that make it safer, it could really benefit people.”
While Harte loves living in her van, she acknowledged that it shouldn’t be a last resort for employees.
“The valley just needs to get its act together and have affordable housing options,” she said. “I think it’s an awesome option and I’m really grateful that it’s an option I actually like. It’s a good option, but it’s really up to the cities and county to create other options too.”