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Rental

Can You Live in a Storage Unit or Van? How Legal These 'Homes' Really Are

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can you live in a storage unit or van? (Javier García Blanco)

Yes, we know: Finding affordable housing can be tough. Tougher than tough. And that has led people to push the boundaries of what "home" is -- living in vans, boxes, and a slew of other stopgap solutions. Call them creative, call them desperate. But can you call them legal?

Well, that all depends on the specifics. Check out this list of alternative living arrangements people have tried to see what leg you can stand on if the cops show up at your door.

Can you live in a storage unit?

At face value, it would seem like this one could work, especially for the types of storage units that are more freestanding as opposed to those housed in multifloor buildings. And, more than a few homeless people have tried it. But, owing to ordinances and a lack of amenities, this one is considered a straight no-go.

"Most of the time, building codes are there for your protection, and storage units aren't built for human habitation: There won't be two means of egress, plumbing, or electricity, and ventilation may be an issue," says attorney Robert Pellegrini, whose law firm, PK Boston, assists its clients with residential zoning and permitting. There's also no kitchen, bathroom, or windows.

Bottom line: It's illegal and possibly dangerous.

Can you live in a van?

A house on wheels? Yes, living in your car or van has become a bit of a thing in pricey-but-young areas like Silicon Valley. But doing so requires some fancy maneuvering.

"There are certainly modifications that you'd want to make to a typical van. But if you don't run up against vagrancy regulations, there are plenty of Wal-Mart parking lots around for you to call home," says Pellegrini. "I'd suggest a safe deposit box and better-than-average auto security, but this is definitely doable -- just ask all the baby boomers driving around the country in their RVs."

The trick is to find venues that don't consider van living illegal.

"Many jurisdictions do not allow people to sleep in public, and this has sometimes been interpreted to include sleeping in a vehicle," says David Reiss, academic program director for Brooklyn Law School's Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

For example, in Beaverton, OR, you can't park a vehicular residence in a commercial lot overnight, but in Boise, ID, you can as long as you have permission from the owner.

To check the status of where you are, do an internet search for "public sleeping + [your current location]" and see what comes up, or look at this report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (there is a list of places where it's OK to sleep in public starting on Page 165).

Can you live in a toolshed?

This one is a big maybe.

"Have you watched ' Tiny House Nation'? As long as you retrofit your shed to meet a few building codes, this is acceptable," says Pellegrini. "Do you have insulation? Easily done. Electricity? Simple to add this. Two means of egress? Probably."

The trouble may come with plumbing and sewer -- your new home must meet sanitation codes and a port-a-potty might not cut it. But if the property's owner allows you access to his or her bathroom, this one might fly. A shed without the proper "residential" requirements, however, will absolutely be deemed uninhabitable.

Could you live on the beach?

In most cases, the answer here is no (but check public ordinances wherever you are). Generally, public beaches -- like those in Fort Lauderdale, FL -- have nighttime hours where they are officially closed to the public, specifically to prevent sleeping on the beach. However, in Laguna Beach, CA, the homeless are allowed to do exactly that due to a discrimination lawsuit won by the ACLU and the fact that shelters in the area routinely turn people away for lack of space.

A better bet? If you can afford it, pitch a tent at a campsite nearby.

"If you could find a campground, you could certainly set up camp there," says Pellegrini. You may have to pay rent, but it's certainly cheap.

Can you live in a box?

Could you build a wooden box in the living room of a friend's apartment -- like in the recent case of an illustrator in San Francisco, CA, who did just that? It became a national story when the city's chief housing inspector got wind of the box abode and put up a fuss.

"In the San Francisco case, it doesn't seem that this artist's box violated local laws," says Reiss. "Safety investigators are going to be less interested in how people choose to live within their own legal apartments than in how landlords might choose to split up an apartment to jam more and more people in it."

In other words, if you put one more roommate in your apartment in a wooden box, OK. But if you were to put 10 of those boxes in an apartment and try to rent them out? Well, safety investigators might balk.

Still, it's not completely unlikely someone might try that.

"Now, more than ever, people are looking for ways to offset the skyrocketing costs of living," says Pellegrini. "I predict that people's resourcefulness and practicality will stretch the definition of 'home' in order to make ends meet."