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The Tow Away Zone: What it’s like to live in a van in Greater Victoria

This UVic student finds himself speaking to millionaires at his day job—then sleeping in parking lots at night

Kristen Cussen
May 25, 2023
Housing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

The Tow Away Zone: What it’s like to live in a van in Greater Victoria

This UVic student finds himself speaking to millionaires at his day job—then sleeping in parking lots at night

Kristen Cussen
May 25, 2023
The interior of Braedon's van converted into a living space. Photo: Submitted
The interior of Braedon's van converted into a living space. Photo: Submitted
Housing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

The Tow Away Zone: What it’s like to live in a van in Greater Victoria

This UVic student finds himself speaking to millionaires at his day job—then sleeping in parking lots at night

Kristen Cussen
May 25, 2023
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The Tow Away Zone: What it’s like to live in a van in Greater Victoria
The interior of Braedon's van converted into a living space. Photo: Submitted

Braedon drives a phlegmy-coloured 1990 Ford E-150 Club Wagon—and he lives in it too. When he welcomes me inside for morning coffee, he is parked outside the Chinese cemetery in Oak Bay, sandwiched between old graves and multi-million dollar homes. Just a bit further is a recess of the Pacific Ocean between the Juan de Fuca and Haro straits. In the most affluent neighbourhood in Victoria, there is no sign of the housing crisis, lest you happen to see the basement-suite student renters appear from side doors like mice—or Braedon’s van.

Inside the van home, I tell him (politely) there is something rather…hearse-like about it. His laugh filled all 40 square feet. He makes room for me, and by this I mean he folds his bed into a couch and tucks his pillow to the other side. We could maybe fit one more person, but we would all be shoulder-to-shoulder and any movement would entail someone’s rear in someone’s face. 

The only viable positions are sitting, a 45-degree standing hunch or lying down on his couch/bed. But Braedon, six feet tall with a clean shave and mild bed head, looks more comfortable than crammed. In plaid pyjama pants and a mustard yellow hoodie, Braedon is giving me the authentic Sunday morning experience. Without moving from his seat, he flicks on his fan, the propane camping stove, and pulls out the morning essentials: a kettle, french press, thermos mugs, and local coffee grounds. On the bright side, not many people can brew coffee in bed.

Braedon is not someone you expect to live in a van. He’s a 24-year-old English honours student at the University of Victoria, a poet, and works part-time as a shadow writer for business leaders on social media. On second thought, maybe he is someone you’d expect to live in a van. 

He wakes up at 5:30 a.m., goes to the University of Victoria’s gym for a workout, and access to the *ahem* facilities. He attends poetry readings and Tuesday night trivia at Felicita’s, but he also pees in Gatorade bottles. He dumps the urine bottles anywhere convenient—without being gross about it—“usually places where it'd be normal for like a dog to piss, you know?” 

He did once dump two gallons beside the Walmart parking lot because they kicked him out. “So now I hate them,” he says matter-of-factly. He pushes the plunger of the french press. Mug in hand, he stretches his legs onto the desk/kitchen/counter. We drink the coffee black. Sugar and cream are not staples in Braedon’s home—that, and his miniscule fridge is jam-packed with almond milk, yogurt and juice.

There’s something about Braedon’s van that invites you to slouch into his bed/couch, prop your feet up on the counter/desk/kitchen, clutch your coffee mug close, feel the steam wet your nose, and stare out at the ocean. I think (very briefly) that I could get behind this. I could say “no more!” to the outrageous rent increases, be one with nature and all that. 

It’s the sun, I think, a deceptively nice day between a grey streak in the weather. But I lock eyes with his emergency potty and begin to miss my porcelain. Like most people have said to Braedon at some point or another, mildly horrified, mainly impressed, “this is so cool—but I could never.” 

That, and it’s entirely illegal. 

Braedon using his french press to make coffee in his van. Photo: Submitted

Aside from a plethora of “no parking” signage, Victoria’s street and traffic bylaws are clear and concise when it comes to these matters: 84 (1) A person must not park a vehicle on a street for the purpose of sleeping overnight in the vehicle. (2) A person must not sleep overnight in a vehicle parked on a street.

In the fall he asked the university to allow him to park overnight in one of the school’s 4,000 stalls for the term. They denied his request. “There are so many systems in place to discourage us from any kind of break from the norm,” says Braedon. The only students allowed to park overnight are those who live on residence. He rotates his nightly parking locations to avoid fines. So far, his only run-in with parking security was an overnight stay in the Hillside Mall Walmart parking lot. He got off with a warning.  

Braedon’s lifestyle was prompted by the housing crisis. Home was Saskatchewan, then shared housing in Vancouver while he attended Langara College. After accepting his admission offer to UVic in the spring of 2022, the future move became daunting. 

“The housing crisis here is worse than in Vancouver and I have to find an affordable place to live when I don’t even know anyone in the city.”

The contents of Braedon's mini fridge. Photo: Submitted

Even students living on campus are dealing with rate increases. This September, UVic is set to increase campus housing and food prices by 10%. Students took to social media to voice their frustrations and the affordability crisis they are facing while attempting to complete school, work on the side, pay for student loans, and keep a roof over their heads.

Van life, while seemingly idyllic to outsiders, is also a strategy to survive. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s annual rental market report revealed rent increased by 7.7% on average from 2021 to 2022. And a vacant one-bedroom apartment in Victoria was being listed for $1,767 on average,and that’s if you can find an opening. According to 2023 data from the CMHC, the vacancy rate in Victoria is 1.5%. 

In recent years some UVic students have given up on attending after they couldn’t find housing by September. Others have spent the early months of the year crashing on couches or tenting in backyards. Some find housing during school, but say they’ll leave town due to the cost as soon as they graduate.  

Aside from a brave English student on a budget or your stereotypicial nomad hippy, there are others who resort to this lifestyle “who are probably having a really tough time,” says Braedon.

A look out the window of Braedon's van. Photo: Submitted

The van is the first space Braedon has actually owned, all for the price of $4,500 and another $8,000 in conversions he put on his credit card. If you’ve ever had to build IKEA furniture, “It’s kind of like that—without the instructions,” he says. 

You can see the effort he’s put in to make it feel like home in the collection of Victorian literature lining the shelves, a fake plant, several photographs tacked to wood beams, Jurassic-themed fabric lining the back door and a decrepit sloth stuffy (named Pablo) on the couch-bed. The van took about four months and plenty of mistakes to get it up to snuff. But with the help of friends, family and YouTube videos, Braedon made it happen. 

From the window, Braedon notices a woman living in the house across the street scowling behind her front window, but she’s not looking at the waterfront view we can see through the opposite window. She’s scowling at Braedon’s van parked in her affluent neighbourhood. Van life is often stigmatized and neighbours like this one don’t have the full picture that this eyesore parked on their street is just a student trying to make ends meet. 

Outside of his studies, Braedon works for “a small agency that does executive thought leadership.” I asked what this meant in non-corporate speak. “Yeah, I’m trying to figure that out,” he says. 

Braedon is somewhere in the middle of the van-dweller spectrum. He’s not the van-life vlogger influencer monetizing his day-to-day life online. But he’s also not fully off the grid with a surfboard on the roof forecasting the next gnarly wave with long, luscious locks (although that’s the dream, he says). But the remote corporate job pays $25 an hour and with an opportunity to spear-head their new in-house publication, it’s the best possible set up. 

Although van life was a choice, the lifestyle entails an unavoidable sense of imposter syndrome. “I’ve interviewed millionaires sitting in this van which is even more than imposter syndrome—it pisses me off,” he says between gulps of Tropicana (straight from the jug). 

“[But], would I still be in this van instead of a normal house if I wasn’t forced into it because of the larger economic challenges facing our generation?” he asks. Another glug of juice. “Probably not, to be honest.” 

The interior of Braedon's converted van, and the personal touches he's added to make it feel like a home. Photo: Submitted

Braedon is a self-described “damp man in a damp van” whose interviewees have no idea he’s often “in the middle of the woods and hasn’t showered in like three days.” Thankfully, Zoom has a ‘blur background’ feature. And it definitely doesn’t smell like unshowered university student in the van. Full is the best way to describe it, like driving home from a day at the beach, a bit woody due to the DIY untreated wood with a few notes of a well-used vanilla cupcake candle on the shelf. 

He likens work to a Zoom class that never ends, making his studies, often also laptop-oriented as an English student, challenging. “There’s no compartmentalization when everything I do is the same, on the same device, in the same location. It’s just a matter of a different tab.” 

Remote work is the most practical form of income for someone as transient as Braedon. Where most student resumes are padded with minimum-wage service industry work, Braedon has the title of an editor. He considers himself lucky, but it comes at a cost. “It sucks because so much about my current job facilitates my lifestyle, but it doesn’t align with my lifestyle.” 

As self-sufficient as he is, his dream is to cut the corporate cord and be his own boss. He dreams of developing his own literary magazine, or creating his own publishing house with like-minded peers. He’s a maker. Whether his DIY drawers close seamlessly or not, Braedon finds a way. 

Some of the DIY touches Braedon has made to his van. Photo: Submitted

Between crunches of Vector cereal in yogurt, Braedon reminisces about the freedom of his initial drive to Victoria. On the first day, he drove from Calgary to Revelstoke, the sunrise rolling behind him with the time change. 

“I was completely autonomous,” he says of his first solo sleep in McConnell Lake Provincial Park. “I woke up and everything was very fresh.” He brewed coffee by the lake, and spent the day working remotely—his home, his ‘office’ expanding from 40 square feet to a provincial park. 

“It was a beautiful, rewarding moment,” he says, “after doing so much work to get this thing ready to go.” He had made it.

That woman is back at her front window staring at us again,  perhaps muttering to herself that we are two hooligans in the back of this 1990 hearse-like van-home parked opposite her house. “I guess to some people it seems like a cheat code,” Braedon says. “It’s like ‘screw you for keeping a roof over your head if it’s not one that you purchased through this standard manner or you don’t pay property taxes.’ ” 

Some people have to work their whole lives to buy a home and 24-year-old Braedon pulls up in his $13,000 home with views a real estate agent could only dream of listing. “I think part of it is jealousy. There are people who have this idea of the way life should be lived, which is very formulaic.” 

He’s not wrong. You go to school, tough it out with the other student renters, get into debt, graduate, find a job, crawl out of debt, find a house, and settle down. “People don’t grasp that this isn’t financially possible for everyone. We need to figure out alternative housing solutions and this is one of them.”

Braedon's van parked outside the Chinese cemetery in Oak Bay. Photo: Submitted

Van life means no property tax, no scummy landlord, no rent increases, and no annoying neighbours (excluding the window watcher, but even she’s temporary)—just a matter of a new parking spot. While the van will not appreciate in value the way typical property does, Braedon’s living expenses really only consist of a fancy (likely illegal) portable Wi-fi device from the US, food, gas, a phone plan, car insurance, and the occasional maintenance work. His necessity budget is just shy of $1,000, but he allots an extra $500 to non-essentials (primarily eating out). To put it in perspective, his all-in monthly expenses are less than the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment these days.

The reduced expenses of van living are enough to make even the most apprehensive check out vans on Craigslist. But you will quickly realize the pitfalls: money and time. 

Average rent for a one-bedroom suite costs roughly $25,000 throughout the year. Braedon’s van costs $13,000, but that was upfront, and on credit. The monthly savings don’t really set in unless the van and modification is fully paid for. You can’t take a mortgage out on a van, and credit card interest rates negate the possibility of saving. Time is the other thing. Most people just don’t have the time or resources to DIY a van conversion. 

Then there’s the possibility of a car accident, the hassle of car insurance and the fact that, despite spending $13,000, Braedon and his 1990 van would not get the payout needed to rebuild or financially support temporary housing. Van life doesn’t inherently have to be this impractical. But since it isn’t formally recognized by financial institutions as a housing option, Braedon doesn’t technically have a permanent address. He didn’t qualify for the $500 Canada Housing Benefit, and without recent landlord references, he will likely struggle to enter the rental market if he chose to find a more traditional housing option. 

These are the obstacles limiting alternative housing solutions. Obstacles that ultimately perpetuate the housing crisis. 

Braedon found ways to work around this. “I was lucky enough to get a $2,000 scholarship and used that to help buy the van.” He used the grant portion of government student funding ($6,000) to pay off most of the conversion costs on his credit card. He used the rest of his loans to transform previous credit card debt into student debt that won’t collect interest until graduation. 

Braedon is grateful to have family offer emergency support in case of a crash or major maintenance work, but he always has a back-up plan. “That’s what van dwelling is,” he says. Braedon is always prepared for a knock on the door, a warning, a request to leave, the watchful stare of an annoyed temporary neighbour. He prides himself on his adaptability and flexibility to sleep anywhere he wants, but he’s under no illusion that there’s ‘no responsibility’ as many would think. He politely dumps his urine bottles where dogs pee, he sorts his garbage, he goes to work, he never parks overnight in the same spot two nights in a row. He exists quietly, just doing his thing, one parking spot at a time. But his lifestyle remains illegal. 

Braedon requested we exclude his last name to preserve his anonymity, due to the legal and professional concerns of his living situation.

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