When it came time to find housing this semester, UC Berkeley junior Hash Khan had three options: he could share a room with two other people for anywhere between $800 and $1,500 per month, sleep in his car, or get creative.
After sleeping in his car for a couple months, the cash-strapped English major knew he needed to resort to option three. It wasn’t long before daily searches on Craigslist led him to find a cost-effective — yet unconventional — solution to his housing woes: a 38-year-old dilapidated Chevy school bus with a sticker price of $800.
The Sacramento native saw the listing on a Sunday. By the following Tuesday, the old bus was his. He named it "Appa" after one of his favorite characters in the "Avatar" franchise and painted it blue to match.
“I didn't really hesitate when I saw it,” Khan said. “I was getting really frustrated with trying to find a place. With the bus, I have privacy; I don’t have to deal with a lot of roommates. It’s like my little home on wheels.”
Khan is hardly the only student to find themselves elbowed out of traditional student housing, especially in the Bay Area, where rents are among the highest in the nation. Local community boards are awash with millennials looking for cheap housing or a couch to surf. GoFundMe is similarly rife with students attempting to crowdfund their way to graduation.
During the 2016 academic year, approximately 32,000 college applicants identified as “unaccompanied homeless youth” on federal student aid forms, a striking number that experts say is a low estimate. And teachers aren’t immune to the housing crunch, either. An adjunct professor at San Jose State University made local headlines for sleeping in her car earlier this year, while an in-depth story by The Guardian focused on a growing number of teachers turning to sex work to help pay bills.
But Khan remains downright optimistic about his living situation, despite the seriousness of the housing crisis that pushed him into it. Ultimately, he said he could never rationalize spending the equivalent of his parent’s monthly mortgage on a cramped space shared with two roommates.
“I really, really, really like the bus,” he stressed. “It just didn’t make sense to me to spend that much money for a spot in a triple, and college is really the only time I’ll be able to do something like this.”
Still, there’s a lot more work to be done before Khan is fully comfortable in his new surroundings. Having already gutted the inside of the bus, he is now adding insulation to keep the cabin space warm during the chilly winter.
“It gets really cold in Berkeley at night,” he said. “After the insulation, I’m going to add wood paneling on the walls ... the end result I’m going for is sort of like a cabin look.”
Due to cost and legal concerns, he won't be adding much else. There is no law against sleeping in cars in Berkeley, but the city’s municipal code states that it is illegal to live in so-called "house cars" that are outfitted with kitchens, bathrooms and other amenities.
To make matters easier, Khan treks to the school gym to shower and relies on public restrooms. He also limits the amount of time spent in the bus by staying on campus during the day. With the money he saves on housing, he is able to eat out at cheap restaurants around the city.
“Living here is definitely helping me save,” Khan said. “By graduation, I’d guess it would be in the thousands.”
The people he roomed with last year have also resorted to less-than-ideal living situations. He said one of his former roommates commutes to school from Tracy, which is at least an hour drive without traffic, and another bought a van and plans to live in it.
"There really aren't a lot of options for housing in Berkeley," he said. "We were all looking for a while, but it was like nothing was in our price range."
According to UC Berkeley, students should estimate spending at least $12,874 per academic year on housing at an on-campus apartment. Financial aid can help offset about a quarter of the costs, but there are often disbursement delays — an outcome with which Khan has already had “frustrating” firsthand experience.
Waitlists for co-op housing, which is considered one of the more cost-effective living arrangements for college students, fill up before the semester even begins. And apartments elsewhere in the city are typically far more expensive. Real-estate firm Zillow estimates that Berkeley’s median rent hovers around $3,700 per month.
“This wouldn't work for everyone, but it does for me," Khan remarked. "I’m basically living in free housing right now."
To celebrate his plan to stave off exorbitant payments, Khan hosted a party with friends shortly after purchasing his makeshift home. The support from peers allayed his fears about ostracization from wealthier classmates.
“Originally, I was worried about what people would say, because (living in a bus) is really out there,” he said. “But everyone’s been really supportive, and everyone thinks it’s really cool. ... I have the ultimate road trip bus.”
Khan has already made up his mind about what he wants to do with the old van after graduation.
“I think what the bus and the universe want me to do is sell it to another Cal student,” he said with a smile. “So that it can keep living here.”