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City officials look to curb ‘van life’

Mark Parker



St. Petersburg City Council members approved changing outdated code language to keep the "van life" trend from over taking local streets. Screengrab.

St. Petersburg’s popularity has soared alongside the cost of living, and many people have discovered a way to take advantage of local amenities without footing the associated bills.

Dozens of modified vans and buses now sit along neighborhood streets and waterfront parks downtown. A night at the Vinoy is over $400; parking on the adjacent right of ways is free.

City council members are heeding residents’ concerns and modernizing outdated ordinances. The Public Service and Infrastructure Committee approved updating code language to curb what is known as “van life” at its Sept. 14 meeting.

“The reality is, it is a problem,” said Councilmember Lisett Hanewicz. “It’s not just one vehicle – it’s a lot of vehicles. Everyone knows parking is horrific downtown and in certain areas … we’re not even in high season yet.”

Assistant City Attorney said registered vehicles under 35 feet without modifications are permissible. Screengrab.

According to a February Yahoo Finance report, the number of van lifers in the U.S. increased from 1.9 million in 2020 to 3.1 million in 2022. The average cost of a home is around $350,000, and local rents have soared about 30% during the same period.

A Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van is $52,000 new. However, someone can find a used van or bus for $10,000, and do-it-yourself conversions start at around $4,000.

The publication states that roughly 80% of van lifers personally modify their vehicles. It also notes that Florida is among the five states with the largest van life population.

However, St. Petersburg’s code does not distinguish between passenger vans and other registered motor vehicles. “They park, and they stay there; they don’t move,” Hanewicz said.

“They did it in the North Shore pool area. People are trying to use facilities – whether it’s the parks or the pool – can’t even use them because it’s like, ‘Ok, we’re not moving.’ That’s it, it’s done.”

Councilmembers voted to remove the “permanent living” requirement from city code. Officials will now classify camper vans as domestic equipment, which includes recreational vehicles, boats, campers and utility trailers.

Those must not exceed 24 feet and can only park on designated rights-of-way for less than four hours between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. from Monday through Thursday. The code allows domestic equipment on legally recognized parking areas with an approved surface from 4 p.m. Thursday through 8 a.m. Monday.

A key change is considering modified vehicles as domestic equipment. That includes adding external air conditioning units, solar panels, generators and deployable tents or awnings.

Assistant City Attorney Heather Judge said the police, transportation and parks and recreation departments collaborated on the proposed changes. She also highlighted a picture of a van that would comply with local ordinances, save for an air conditioning wall unit protruding from the rear.

Councilmember Richie Floyd said he understood why a deployed generator is an issue. However, he said someone could attach an air conditioner “because the AC in their car broke.”

“It’s one small modification,” he added. “I don’t see that is going to change it and make it fall into a whole new category. Same with solar panels as well.”

The external air conditioning unit renders this van non-compliant with the code changes. Screengrab.

Floyd explained that people often modify vehicles they drive to work daily. He said owners might use a modified van to travel occasionally, but still rely on it as their primary transportation source.

“I want to make sure we’re not capturing a lot of things that could potentially cause issues for people and how they get around right now,” Floyd said.

Hanewicz said she understood that sentiment but noted that city officials must categorize all vehicles causing the issue. She said it is challenging to parse specific equipment and uses and doesn’t believe Judd intended to cast an overly broad net.

The committee voted to advance the proposed code changes. However, a related discussion regarding domestic equipment restrictions at residences will continue.

City administrators are also exploring a potential problem with commercial equipment parked in the right of ways around the Skyway Marina District. Evan Mory, transportation and parking manager, said that was an isolated issue.

He said local church officials have complained that small businesses and corporations are parking along area roadways. While the issue is comparatively minor, any code changes would necessitate Senate Bill 170’s Business Impact Assessment.

The recently enacted legislation allows business owners to sue local governments that pass “arbitrary or unreasonable” ordinances that harm profits. Local leaders must prove otherwise.

While administrators believe the commercial parking problem is less widespread than the other issues, Hanewicz said city officials could practice completing the new impact assessments.






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  1. Avatar


    September 15, 2023at1:18 pm

    A better solution is not hampering people from creatively finding a solution to the affordable housing crisis, but work on building more affordable housing and not housing for the wealthy only. What does the City expect people to do? Seems this is a much better avenue than people living in the parks, alleys,and on the streets.

  2. Avatar


    September 15, 2023at2:33 pm

    Explain to me in small words why it’s ok to be homeless and camp and litter trash all over public areas but it’s not ok to camp in a car.

  3. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    September 15, 2023at3:20 pm

    Let them park at the Trop surface-lot.
    At least someone will get some use out of that waste of space.

  4. Avatar

    John Donovan

    September 15, 2023at3:34 pm

    A limited number of metered (fee) spaces at a reasonable price and an overall daily time limitation might add flexibility, and revenue. The metered spaces can be at the perimeter of parking lots, not the prime spaces.

  5. Avatar


    September 15, 2023at4:32 pm

    There’s vast swaths of empty parking space at abandoned shopping centers across the county. What a waste of space! Why doesn’t city leadership get creative about providing solutions to the affordable housing crisis instead of making it ever more difficult to survive here.

  6. Avatar

    Aurelio Arredondo

    September 15, 2023at6:43 pm

    People need affordable housing van life might be a short-term solution but it’s not a real solution. Driving around St Petersburg there’s a lot of unused parking spaces such as in shopping malls or shopping centers that are not being used at night why can’t people that are in this predicament having to live out of a van Park in the spots and not on public streets let’s hope our beautiful city does not turn into a San Francisco with their huge homeless problem.

  7. Avatar

    Hazeltine Hugh

    September 15, 2023at9:16 pm

    On my morning bike ride along Vinoy Park and North shore beach I see the same vans parked there over and over. The city posted no overnight parking in the North shore pool parking lot. Now the vans steam in at sunrise and appear to be there all day.

  8. Avatar

    Frankie smart

    September 16, 2023at6:41 am

    I am disabled and will be purchasing a camper van soon. No way I can afford rent. A/c or solar panels should not reclassify a vehicle. I do think it is reasonable to restrict perpetual street parking. Just allow overnight from 5pm to 8am. I agree that there are thousands of acres of asphalt parking lot space that could be used. Van dwellers need to do their homework too. Don’t park in the same spot more than one day. Have at least 7 different parking spots. Have day camps ie: library, public park, shopping center ect. and a seperate night camp ie: 24hr convenient stores, restaurants ect. Get a full or part-time job if you’re able.
    Get a gym membership at planet fitness and use it. Exciercise equipment climate controlled, bathroom, hot shower, massage chairs for 26$ a month. I am hygenicly clean physically fit in appearance than any mcmansion dwellers. Leave no trace. Don’t leave trash or otherwise cause a problem. Van life is definitely an affordable way of life and it should not be stigmatized.

  9. Avatar

    K Young

    September 16, 2023at7:24 am

    I read of a church that established a gated parking area that featured restrooms, showers, shade pavilions cooking areas. Many of the people utilizing drive their vehicles to work daily but can no longer afford to live in a house or apartment. I think this is a brilliant idea, a ministry akin to what churches do that are on the Appalachian Trail offering help and hospitality to trail walkers.

  10. Avatar

    Lyle Seaman

    September 16, 2023at7:44 am

    Just charge for parking. Problem solved, no need to invent arbitrary, weird, or draconian restrictions.

  11. Avatar


    September 16, 2023at8:55 pm

    Some people When they are retired, they cannot afford living in house or apartment. Government should let the van lifters parking on street. Just charge for parking fee. Better offer them free parking lots.

  12. Avatar

    Jerry Joslin

    September 17, 2023at8:11 am

    I’m glad to see people posting some solutions to the “van life problem” instead of just hammering them. As long as van lifers are respectful and don’t trash the place all should be good.

  13. Avatar


    September 17, 2023at1:56 pm

    Let van liferes park in abandon parking lots and shopping centers. Or make housing affordable. You are penalizing Americans because they can’t afford housing. It is just wrong.

  14. Avatar

    S Rose Smith Hayes

    September 17, 2023at3:00 pm

    Why are you looking for ways to make life more difficult for homeless folk??? They are Not sleeping on the streets nor in the parks. They are in a covered vehicle. Most have jobs. Solve the rent problem. Look for solutions to Real issues Please.

  15. Avatar


    September 17, 2023at6:30 pm

    Can’t have people living in vans when they keep allowing and building condo sky scrapers. How many empty parking lots are there in st pete there’s a big one on 73rd and 4th with the abandoned winn dixe.

  16. Avatar

    Concerned Taxpayer

    September 17, 2023at9:25 pm

    Many of the above comments ask the TAXPAYER to subsidize the lifestyle choices of others. Taxpayers pay for the sanitation needed to clean up he mess left behind, the monitoring of potential criminal activity, the parks, road upkeep etcetera. St. Petersburg is not a camp ground. Grow up, get a job, stop freeloading and move along!

  17. Avatar


    September 18, 2023at9:26 pm

    Some van lifers are travelers – notice plates – variety of states & also from Canada.
    Some might be local residents that have been “pushed out” – place they were residing was sold or rent & utilities became out of reach. I would applaud their ingenuity – especially your service industry persons – to keep those businesses operating.
    Instead of making life so unbearable- how about some creative solutions – history of St Pete – Tin Can Alley.
    Go talk to some of the van lifers at Northshore Park .

    As far as the Orange Bus – wasn’t there for long & had a For Sale sign
    Appears to me, some like to make a mountain out of an ant hill – attack without being fully educated on the subject to come up with Solutions for the Betterment of All.

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