Making It in the Bay

Students Build Tiny Homes in Vans and Trucks While SF Rent Soars

Some say it's a financial decision to emerge from school with savings rather than debt

NBCUniversal, Inc.

What to Know

  • At City College of San Francisco, a dozen or so students have formed a community, living off the grid in solar-powered camper vans at the edge of campus
  • The students work on their vans together, sharing tools and building supplies, and say it's a smarter way to spend their money than San Francisco's sky-high rent
  • As student homelessness climbs, California lawmakers are looking at ways to provide community college students with housing, or at least safe overnight parking

At the edge of the City College of San Francisco main campus, there's a small, invisible neighborhood.

Its residents look out for each other, keep the sidewalks clean and sometimes throw quiet dinner parties. They share tools and recipes, help each other out with projects and give a friendly welcome to newcomers.

But of the 60,000-plus students who attend City College, it's likely that many walk through this neighborhood every day without knowing it's there. And that's exactly the point.

"It is a bit of a paradox," Kyle Murphy said. "Create community, keep below the radar."

Murphy is, according to his friends, the unofficial mayor of this small and flourishing neighborhood. Dotting the edge of campus along Frida Kahlo Way, somewhere around a dozen nondescript vans and work trucks are hiding the handcrafted tiny homes of City College students, attending school in the face of San Francisco's record-high rent.

Unassuming and unmarked, some of the trucks and vans parked along Frida Kahlo Way contain elaborate, solar-powered tiny homes, built by students looking for an alternative to San Francisco's sky-high rent. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

"This, financially and educationally, makes more sense for me," Murphy explained.

Murphy is in the process of building his second tiny apartment, in the back of what used to be a FedEx truck. Every weekend, he drives down to The Home Depot where he can pick up supplies and get advice from fellow community members working on upgrades to their own homes. 

"Everything that will be in my living space will be designed by me, for me," he said.

Kyle Murphy has already put up insulation and plywood walls inside this former FedEx truck. Running his power tools off solar panels attached to the roof, he said he's planning to build a full kitchen, a shower and seating for eight people inside the vehicle's spacious cargo area. A folding couch will flip down from the wall and conceal his memory foam mattress during the daytime.

For Murphy, who loves to cook, that means a full kitchen with a gas range and a refrigerator. Others have outfitted their vehicles with home theater systems, fine artisan-built furniture and ergonomic workspaces. 

"This used to be, like, an ambulance," explained Jimmy Wu, who parked his high-roof Ford van next to Murphy's truck as he worked on upgrades to its solar power system. 

In the next parking space, a fellow student was applying thick coats of polyurethane to a kitchen countertop he'd just cut for his Dodge ProMaster. 

Many of the van-dwelling residents of Frida Kahlo Way are U.S. military veterans, including some with training in carpentry and electrical work. Here at The Home Depot, they work together on weekends to build and upgrade their homes. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

Though they're all studying different subjects, and all at different points in their schooling, the three students have something in common: they're all U.S. military veterans, attending school with the help of the benefits package known as the GI Bill. 

"It pays for tuition, and it also pays for housing," Wu explained. "You can spend it, get an apartment or a house, or you can save it — it's up to you. I chose to save it."

This Dodge van houses an ergonomic workspace that converts into a queen-sized bed, and a kitchenette with propane-fired burners. Hot and cold running water will ultimately feed both a sink and a pop-up shower, which collapses into a raised floorboard when not in use.

Veterans who've served on active duty since 9/11 are eligible for four years of college tuition, plus a monthly housing allowance that varies based on where they attend school. That allowance is based roughly on the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment near campus. In San Francisco, the monthly housing allowance is a little over $4,000 — the highest in the country, according to a VA spokesperson.

Murphy said he feels that banking the monthly stipend, instead of renting an apartment, "will allow me to save as much money as possible, to set myself up for success when school ends, and the paycheck that comes with it ends."

Wu and Murphy acknowledge that van life isn't for everyone. It helps that among their community members, they have military experience in carpentry and electrical work, and plenty of practice sleeping in small spaces.

Jimmy Wu's home inside this former ambulance is made for cooking, studying and relaxing with movies on a giant foldable projection screen. Powered with rooftop solar panels that charge a bank of batteries under the bed, Wu has enough electricity to keep his laptop charged while making an Instant Pot full of curry.

"I've slept in holes on the side of a mountain, hoping someone doesn't come up the hill in the middle of the night, trying to kill me," Murphy said. "For me, those inconveniences, to find myself in a more comfortable situation down the road, is a sacrifice I'm willing to make."

It's not only veterans in the community. Michelle Dao and Austin Demott are the most recent additions to the neighborhood, after deciding that comfortable housing wasn't worth a mountain of student debt. Dao recently graduated, and Demott is working on his bachelor's degree after transferring to San Francisco State.

"After I graduated, we went on a backpacking trip around Europe and Asia, and that lasted for 6 months," Dao said. "When we came back to San Francisco after that trip, we realized that it had been really easy to live out of a backpack this whole time."

In this Chevy van, Michelle Dao and Austin Demott are the newest residents of this non-traditional neighborhood, and may also have the smallest living space. With soft, double-layered carpet, they often cook while standing on their knees, and have hosted dinner parties in their van for up to four people. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

After making repairs and upgrades to a well-worn Chevy van, the two say they've adopted a minimalist lifestyle that also allows them the freedom to take road trips during winter and summer breaks from school.

The community members say they've forged a good relationship with campus police, keep quiet at night, and pick up trash — even if it's not their own. But the fact remains that they're parking on a major public street, with cars whizzing by at all hours of the day and night, and relying on campus facilities for some of the things their vans don't provide.

"Real talk, the biggest challenge is probably finding a bathroom, like, late at night," Demott said.

Some of those unpleasant realities would be eased, Murphy said, if City College would allow the students overnight access to a large parking lot on campus that currently sits mostly empty after nightfall. 

Students say that overnight access to this auxiliary parking lot on the City College campus would ease some of the difficulties they experience while living in their vehicles. (Photo: Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area)

"To close your eyes at night and get some sleep without all of the noise, I think, would be a huge improvement," he said, adding that sleep hasn't come easily for him since his time as an Army combat medic in Afghanistan.

A California Assembly bill, AB302, would require community colleges to allow overnight access to campus parking — and bathrooms — for students who live in their vehicles.

"This is a choice that students in 2020 have to make, that students in 1970 did not," said Assemblymember Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, the bill's author. "AB302 was meant to be a band-aid, it was meant to be a short-term solution, to help these students now — while we also work on the bigger, long-term solution of building more housing."

In a survey published by The Hope Center in 2019, 19% of California community college students who participated said they had experienced homelessness in the past year, and 20% of those students — or 4% overall — said they had lived in their vehicles. 

"19% of community college students experiencing homelessness is a crisis," Berman said.

In researching the bill, Berman said he held community meetings in several California cities to understand why so many students were resorting to non-traditional living quarters.

"They were kind of deciding between the necessities of life — housing, food, healthcare, education — and they were prioritizing education over housing, which was amazing that they had the strength to do that," he said.

Berman has placed AB302 on hold after he objected to amendments it received in the Senate, amid strong opposition from the California League of Community Colleges. At issue, he said, was how much it would cost the schools to implement safe overnight parking.

A spokesperson for the City College of San Francisco said the school's leadership is still discussing the future of the parking lot and isn't ready to offer a comment. 

Until they hear from college administrators, Murphy and his van-dwelling neighbors say they've created a workable situation — one that works, in part, because they're doing it together.

"I don't think it would be doable if it was just me alone in a van on the side of the road," Murphy said.

Murphy said he knows that to be true because he's lived it. In a downward spiral of self-doubt, he said, he emerged from his vehicle one day about two years ago and knocked on the window of a truck with New York license plates just up the block. Making friends with the couple living inside, he said, was a turning point.

 "That kind of started the community that we have now here, and it is that community that we founded that has made this doable," he said.

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