Like many Bay Area millennials, Alison Rush and husband Jordan Cowman face a difficult dilemma: housing.
But true to their generation's environmentalist sensibilities, they have come up with a potential solution that would be both affordable and allow them to live out their values of reducing waste and eschewing over consumption.
Enter the "Skallywagon," their as-yet-unchristened 40-foot converted bus/house. The vehicle could soon be their home if they are able to find a patch of land in Palo Alto or the surrounding area to park it on.
The couple's mobile dreams are not a throwback to the 1960s but a pragmatic approach to the problems affecting their generation, they said.
Millennials since their infancy have lived amid the constant refrain of impending ecological Armageddon, Rush said. Among many young adults, living in 200- to 300-square-foot housing also known as "tiny cottages" rules.
Tiny cottages range from stationary homes to converted trucks and buses. Some can be as elaborate as real-life mini castles that can be folded down during travel.
"Skoolies," people who live in old school buses, are a branch of the movement, and there are active online forums for skoolie and tiny-house communities.
Rush and Cowman had been researching tiny houses for some time when they came upon an ad for the already converted 1988 bus. The bus was priced for a quick sale. Previously housed in Clackamas, Oregon, the vehicle has all the accoutrements of a recreational vehicle. It has bathroom facilities, black-water and clean-water-holding systems, space for a California king bed, a kitchen, double bunk beds and loads of storage space.
"It seemed to be a great way to live the way we always wanted to," Cowman recently told the Weekly.
Prior to moving to the Bay Area, the couple lived in a four-bedroom house in Merced with housemates. But "the law of stuff" took over, Cowman said that's where the number of objects expands to fill the size of a container. Art supplies, clothing and other possessions filled every inch of space.
"We were surprised at how much of our lives were consumed by paying for things we don't need and worrying about things," Rush said.
When they moved to Palo Alto so Rush could pursue her doctorate degree at the Stanford Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, they pared down their belongings by four-fifths. Most items went to a friend's thrift store, and they had a small yard sale.
Rush brought just two suitcases and a ukulele.
"The paring-down process was very revealing. It was a refreshing way of thinking," she said.
Cowman and Rush, who married last summer, found a "fabulous" 650-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto that is, by Palo Alto standards, of reasonable cost.
But the knowledge that an unexplained medical emergency could plunge them into a real financial crisis created a sense of instability that lingers, Rush said.
In Merced, they paid $280 a month for their share of the big house; in Palo Alto, they pay $2,345, which is on the cheap side for the city, Cowman said.
"We're making more money than in the valley, but that's completely negated by the fact that it all goes into the housing," he said.
Buying the bus takes a huge pressure off, however. Their house is paid for, he noted.
Rush agreed and said others of their generation feel the same way. Given the state of the economy, they don't expect to live at the consumption level of previous generations, she said.
Living in a bus is not a rejection of the American Dream, it's an adjustment to a new reality, she said.
"It's practical. It makes it easier to meet our dreams," Cowman added.
For Rush, it's more about a shift in assumptions. With her idea of music shaken by her studies at Stanford, Rush said a parallel evolved in her life regarding assumptions about how to live and what is reasonable, she said.
"Living consciously and deliberately and not losing time by not treading water felt absolutely right," she added.
Shaped by the crises of their times, millennials are leery of institutions that are supposed to guarantee financial stability, Cowman said.
"There's a general suspicion of corporate brainwashing. And we've grown up with the specter of environmental doom: 'Yes, we are killing the planet, and as consumers this is what you can buy to fix it.' It's unnerving it's been thought-provoking for us," she said.
Having secured their home, Rush and Cowman now face another hurdle: finding land where they can park and live in the bus.
Mobile-home and RV park spaces are generally not available, and city and county laws make finding a suitable location challenging, they said.
Cowman and Rush are considering a number of options, from purchasing land to living mobile around the Bay Area. They have reached out through some neighborhood networks in search of a willing property owner that might also host them, they said.
"At this point, we want to find someone who has space and who is willing to host us for what they think the bus is worth," they said.
Cowman and Rush face some regulatory roadblocks to fulfilling their dream. In many cities and counties, skoolie living isn't legal, they said. They'd like to stay local.
Palo Alto does not allow living in vehicles on private property, even if the vehicle is in the rear yard, according to Brian Reynolds, city code enforcement officer.
"Typically, we are alerted to these matters by neighbors who see either activity or electrical hookups. Concerns of waste removal, etc., are often concerns as well," he said.
The city's chief building official can allow for living in a mobile home for a restricted time period, usually for up to 30 days, but that is usually in conjunction with a building permit, he said.
But that is very rare.
"Honestly, I do not recall this ever occurring," Reynolds said.
The larger the plot of land, the less likely the city would get complaints or be able to observe a violation, but it would still not be in compliance with the zoning code, he said.
Rush predicts the tiny house and micro-mobile home movement will have growing appeal.
"It allows people to have the cake of living in the Bay Area and eat it too without going bankrupt," she said.