TRUE LIFE

Rent is so high in San Francisco that I’m a software engineer and I live in a van

About a year ago, I was having lunch with a friend when I made a throwaway comment: “Have you seen the rent in San Francisco? If I get a job in the Bay Area, I’ll totally live in a van.”

As I sit in darkness writing this, I’m trying to keep my typing quiet, lest a real inhabitant of the neighborhood I’m parked in should walk by and wonder about the sounds coming from the rusty bus loitering on their block. Yes, you understood that correctly: Today, I work in a multi-million dollar office complex, and I live in a van.

This summer, after receiving a job offer in Silicon Valley, I went on Craigslist and began sifting through housing listings: “verrrrrryyy cheap bedroom ;),” “great deal on rent!” A single room with a shared bathroom? Two thousand per month on the low-end. A small studio apartment, you ask? If your startup wasn’t recently bought for seven figures, forget about it.

I perked up after finding a listing for $1,000 per month. Now this could work. Clicking through to the details section however revealed the offer was for a single bunk in a room with eight people, a set-up referred to as a “hacker house” by an (evil) marketing genius.

Even if I was to spend the huge majority of my salary on rent, I knew I would likely still be in a grim living situation, resenting every penny I handed over that could have gone towards paying back my student loans. And as a software engineer, I’m one of the lucky ones! Imagine those who aren’t lucky enough to be on the tech payroll.

Anyway, three weeks ago I took the equivalent of three months’ rent and bought an old red bus. It’s a 1969 VW camper van with a hole in the floor and a family of spiders that has more of a right to be here than I do (sleeping in your car on public land in California is illegal).

(Katharine Patterson/blog.thinkkappi.com)

But with the help of Ikea and an army of cleaning supplies I was able to get the bus into livable condition.

(Katharine Patterson/blog.thinkkappi.com)

From certain angles, it even passes for a tiny, $1,000-per-month bedroom.

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(Katharine Patterson/blog.thinkkappi.com)

Overall, I’m proud of the way my project turned out. But of course this living situation wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t already have a job that feeds me and allows me to shower and do laundry at work. I also have a network of friends who are ready to step in should a crisis emerge and offer me a temporary bed. And I am a young, white woman, which gives me the immense privilege of pulling up a creepy van and parking it without being harassed. People don’t report me; neither do they assume I’m a vagrant. They smile and ask if I need anything.

There are many people who are forced to live in their cars because they really cannot afford to live in the Bay Area. I am not technically one of them, and in doing this by choice I am inevitably appropriating their hardships. However, I am also saving hard, trying to pay off my debts, and learning a few invaluable life skills—like carpentry and how to be a fairly competent mechanic—in the process. Also, I get to flood social media with updates that basically equate to “Ha. Told you I’d do it. Look at me now. I’m in a bus. You’re going to have to pay up on the $5 bet you made that I would never go through with it.”

To these insufferable comments my friends reply that it is $5 well spent.

You can follow Katharine’s efforts at becoming a classic car mechanic at blog.thinkkappi.com. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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