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City council members are heeding residents’ concerns and modernizing outdated ordinances.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.”
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.”
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.