Victoria van living “more common than you think”
Daniel Drury wakes up early — around 6:30-7:00 a.m. — so as not to upset the neighborhood residents whose houses he parks in front of. These early mornings can be rough, he says. But the silver lining: he gets first pick of the spots in Parking Lot 2. He’s there every morning, making coffee in his french press, using water he boiled on his camping stove.
Drury lives in a 1994 Ford Econoline, with the cargo area converted into a bed. There are string lights hanging from the ceiling. The back of the van is filled with dehumidifier crystal jugs. He tells me that one of the problems of living in a van, especially in the winter, is that the condensation can cause mould.
Drury is a third-year economics student who transferred to UVic in 2020 and had to look for new housing for the 2021/2022 academic year. As he was working a full-time job in the summer, plus taking an online class at UVic, Drury told me he didn’t have the time to spend hours browsing classifieds and emailing landlords every day.
“I’ve got three or four housing references now so I was thinking, if it’s this hard for me to get a response, think about people who have to look for this as their first place and they don’t have any housing references.”
For many, the wounds of last year’s housing hunt will still be fresh. A host of factors contributed to a particularly arduous process, including the pandemic, a backlog of first years, and a partial loss of on-campus beds due to new residence construction. Some students reported landlords were taking advantage of the excess demand and even started bidding wars in some cases.
“I’d always thought [living in a van] would be an interesting thing to try out because rent’s so expensive,” said Drury. “So the opportunity to not have to pay rent was something that I always thought … might be worth a try.”
Drury bought the van from a couple of Australians travelling across Canada for about $6 900, approximately the same as his yearly housing budget.
“So I’m going to easily break even on what I paid for it by the end of the semester, but then obviously I retain the van as an asset that I can resell. I’m economically making a profit by living in it.’”
According to a March 2022 report by Zumper, the median rate for a one-bedroom in Victoria is now $1 790.
The extent of Drury’s rent is the $75 a month UVic parking pass. As the university does not allow drivers to occupy their vehicles overnight, Drury drives off-campus to sleep elsewhere. He changes location every night, to avoid bothering any residents.
“I’ve found the best spots to look for are on residential streets where there’s a break in the properties for a little forested area or trail, but no ‘no parking signs.’ Oh, and it needs to be flat.”
Drury showers in the Engineering and Computer Science building, because it has more privacy than other washrooms. There are 10 on-campus washrooms with showers for students. One of the spots he refills his water tanks is the library basement. He recommends a heater to prevent pipes from bursting in the vehicle during the winters.
Drury showed me his double duvets and Under Armour thermal layer he uses to bundle up in the colder months. He’s also got a sleeping bag, and three more blankets.
His main nuisance with the winters is that it gets too cold to study in the van. Instead, he has to take to the library, where he recharges his devices, and watches either a movie or the soccer game — the extent of his entertainment.
Drury said he read the entire 17-page UVic Traffic and Parking Regulations before he started parking on-campus, to familiarize himself with the university’s rules. Aside from one encounter with Campus Security (CSec) knocking on his window while he was studying late, Drury said he’s had no trouble with CSec.
“The CSec guy who I spoke to, he said to me ‘I have no problem with you being here, and I know rent’s been really tough, the housing’s been really tough this year, people have gotta do what they gotta do.”
Officially, it is in contravention of Saanich bylaws to sleep in your vehicle on the street.
“It’s more common than you think, because when I bring it up with people now they’re always like, alright, either they did it themselves, or they know someone who did it,” said Drury. “So I’ve been surprised by how many people have done it or know someone who’s done it.”
Despite successfully sticking through a whole school year in the van, Drury acknowledges the difficulty of the situation, and doesn’t recommend it for others.
“There’s definitely times where I’ve been like ‘Oh my god, why am I doing this?’”
In 2017, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps proposed to council that city bylaws be changed to allow people to sleep in their vehicles when the vacancy rate hits 3 per cent or lower. The motion failed.
In an email statement to the Martlet, the District of Saanich said it “understands that many residents are struggling to find housing options that are affordable and suitable to their needs and we want residents to know we are working hard to address these issues.” They went on to cite the ways in which the district has been working to improve access to housing.
Meanwhile, in 2021, Greater Victoria’s vacancy rate plummeted from 2.2 to one per cent.
Drury is unsure whether or not he’ll keep living in the van for fourth year.