What if the answer to “where to live now” is actually “lots of places” and “kind of nowhere”?
Kibbo is a new entry in the booming business of U.S. van life. It rents vans to its members and creates communities for them to engage with.
It plans to start with five wilderness locations where its vans can park. The first, expected to open in September, include Ojai and Big Sur, California; Zion, Utah; and the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, home of Burning Man. These locations — you could call them campsites, or trailer parks? — have a central hub, or clubhouse, designed to feel like co-living space. There will be Wi-Fi, restrooms, and a kitchen with shared food.
The other upside? Members lease these mobile homes, with all-access membership and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4 cargo van rentals starting at about $1,500 a month. (Members with their own vans will pay about $1,000 a month for access to clubhouses.)
Marian Goodell, the CEO of Burning Man, owns her San Francisco apartment but has been living in a borrowed Kibbo van for the past several weeks, test-driving the lifestyle.
“Before COVID, this was an interesting idea,” Goodell said. (She was parked just outside Grand Rapids, Michigan.) “But now, this crisis is going to create more micro-communities.”
Next year, the company plans to add five urban locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. Members may come, go and return as they wish.
Much of the United States is mobile already, though in very different ways. The country has a long-established network of RV parks where people can vacation or live semipermanently. And the Sturgis annual motorcycle rally revved up this month, despite local opposition; last year it brought nearly 500,000 motorcycle enthusiasts to Sturgis, a town of 7,000 in South Dakota.
Then there are the darker aspects of our current life on wheels: Many cities are in the midst of a growing homelessness crisis, with tens of thousands of U.S. residents living in vans or cars out of desperation. (In Los Angeles alone, 16,500 homeless people were living in cars in 2019.)
This year, the City Council in Berkeley, California, grappling with people sleeping in vans overnight in commercial districts, voted to try a program of permits for overnight use of city lots.
This stands in opposition to the Instagram-friendly influencer version of #vanlife — vintage Volkswagen buses with cute curtains, California sunsets, wide-brim hats, where what’s going on after the pictures are taken is a bit unclear.
“It’s really difficult to be in a van in a city,” Kibbo founder Colin O’Donnell said. We were actually speaking in one of his vans, parked on a San Francisco street in a perpendicular spot. He sat in the passenger seat, swiveled backward. There were cork floors and a kitchenette between us, with a little fridge, a little stove.
It’s difficult even for people who have other housing. At one point in our chat, a Volkswagen pulled into the spot next to us and then, spying us, the driver did a double take and quickly backed out. O’Donnell is aiming for the laptop warrior set, not retirees.
“There’s a snowbird demographic that’s not really the demographic we’re looking at,” he said. Kibbo members “are working. They’re creating. They’re people interested in participating in the city at large.”
O’Donnell is already a member of a co-living community; he has about a dozen roommates in a converted Victorian house, which partly inspired the idea. Along with Monday night group dinners, book clubs and agreements on quiet hours, there are also semipublic events like open-mike nights and political talks.
Kibbo sounded appealing for a certain type of childless extrovert. I asked O’Donnell if he thought his new business had a borderline dystopian quality. Cities are now so expensive that even people with decent jobs live in vehicles, traveling the wilderness? “Dystopian and utopian are close kins,” he said. The freedom to choose is the difference, he added.
He was also a founder of LinkNYC, a company that converted pay phones to Wi-Fi hot spots in New York City. (The company was championed by city government; was criticized for overserving the richest parts of the city, and for people using its Web browsers in public, which were then turned off; and was often regarded as a menace to privacy for its cameras and potential data tracking, though the company said it did not track users.)
“It got me thinking, what if we could change more than just pixels?” O’Donnell said. “I started thinking about dynamic cities.” Life on wheels is his solution to the high cost of city living. Though real estate costs are now undergoing their own transformation, the housing crisis continues. (Average rent for a San Francisco one-bedroom: $3,280.).
He’s pitching Kibbo as a cheaper, more flexible alternative to paying rent and an easy way for cities to add housing. If people just lived in vehicles — or “mobile bedrooms,” as he called them — you could build a “house” as easily as parking a car.
The pandemic, he said, has made negotiating with commercial landowners much easier. For beleaguered resorts and ghost town corporate campuses, he’s pitching a Kibbo site as a new kind of reliable tenant.
The pandemic is also bringing new people to populate those vans. O’Donnell said interest is coming from all sorts of people who are suddenly working from home. “People are spending so much money on this product that’s outdated and undesirable,” he said. “It’s starting to look more like a prison like you’re stuck in, especially after four months of quarantine.”
Ysiad Ferreiras, 36, is eager to sign up. Ferreiras is from the Bronx, New York, but has been living in a San Francisco apartment for the past three years, working at a political technology company. “It would allow me to try out different cities if I’m considering a move,” he said. “It would make it easier for me to present as someone currently living in a place.”
Kyrié Carpenter, a 34-year-old anti-ageism activist and coach, who also lives in San Francisco, plans to join. She has a Sprinter Van she calls Le Rêve (“the dream,” in French). During the pandemic she and her partner have been on the road, working remotely and living mostly out of the van.
“Stealth camping” in cities has always required some strategizing, she said. “We look like a plumber,” she said, because her van doesn’t have side windows, which helps, but finding a safe, flat parking spot isn’t always easy. They’ve learned through trial and error that parking on a hill makes for a rough night’s sleep.
Carpenter, who also rents an apartment in San Francisco with roommates, said she liked the idea of not being attached to any one place or ever needing to own property. “I grew up in Florida, and my mom’s a Realtor. We had a front seat to the housing market crash,” she said.
Kibbo, she added, could help make the sense of freedom that comes with van life a more permanent thing.
O’Donnell said the pandemic accelerated his timeline for the business, with preorders underway and the first communities opening by Sept. 1 (there is already a waiting list). Kibbo, named after a camping, crafting and world peace movement in 1920s England, is far from a proven concept.
But Goodell, from Burning Man, said she was excited about Kibbo’s concept. In her view — and she should know something about gatherings — the pandemic has increased the desire for people to connect safely in smaller groups in their cities or on the road.
She planned to send feedback to O’Donnell about living out of the Kibbo van when she got home. The biggest challenge so far? The lack of a bathroom. She made use of a marine toilet and a portable solar-powered 2-gallon pouch often used in camping. For her, that was fine.
“The experience reminds me very much of Burning Man,” she said.
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