When Home Sweet Home Is a School Bus

By Sanjena Sathian


Housing crisis? Looks like America’s got this one. 

Danny Bocanegra, a 28-year-old former college football player and onetime company founder, works at a San Francisco venture capital firm focused on bitcoin investing, drives a motorcycle and manifests Wall Street banker good looks alongside idealistic beliefs in radical deregulation. 

“I just want the freedom to live as I want to,” he says. It’s exactly this world of the Valley Bitcoin-esque philosophy that has led Bocanegra to his newest life plan: He’s moving out of his Brisbane, California, apartment and onto a school bus.

His bus is parked in a storage lot on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. It’s been painted almond white; inside, it’s stacked with the various detritus of a construction site: bamboo slabs that will make up the floor, an Ikea mattress, $50 sheets of wood. Bocanegra bought the bus for $3,500 and expects to drop $10,000 to $12,000 on making it homey.

Trailer Park Logo Friday

Danny Bocanegra climbs onto the roof of his bus while making repairs.

Source Talia Herman for OZY

This, apparently, is now a thing. Americans have always had a special affinity for the road, and today that manifests in the form of buying up old-school tour and highway buses, gutting them, gussying them up and living on them. Showering on them. And yes, pooping on them. Well, not on them. Some owners are nomadic caravanners; others treat the buses like ordinary houses. Who are they? Men with a Lone Ranger fantasy, full-time homeschooling (or “road-schooling”) families whose focus is spouse and kids over work, Pinteresting women. It’s fitting: Eight years after the housing market imploded, a long-running, quintessentially American narrative of personal freedom has coupled with skepticism of traditional institutions. 

It’s people who don’t want to get lost in that ‘American Dream’ ethos and get stuck behind a desk just to pay for a mortgage.

Andrew Odom, blogger for The Tiny Life

Danny Bocanegra

Bocanegra estimates he will spend $10,000 to $12,000 turning his bus into a home.

Source Talia Herman for OZY

Estimating this group’s numbers is hard. Gary Hatt, publisher of Bus Conversion Magazine, says the trend is “picking up” thanks to buses getting cheaper; it’s a small (read: hipster) fad — Hatt figures fewer than 1,000 people convert every year. (A fraction of the estimated 9 million RV owners in the U.S., according to Menges Tecle of the Registration Vehicle Industry Association.) There’s even a whole forum devoted to school bus conversion, Skoolie.net. What is certain is that those hankering for this sort of lifestyle are channeling a kind of anti-picket-fence, ’60s-reincarnated vibe of living free and small. Buses might be the next incarnation of the popular “tiny houses” movement or a revival of the original Airstream trailer aesthetic — which wasn’t, when it began, considered trashy. 

“It’s people who don’t want to get lost in that ‘American Dream’ ethos and get stuck behind a desk just to pay for a mortgage,” says Andrew Odom, who blogs for The Tiny Life, a popular destination for tiny-house builders and bus renovators alike. That said, many bus denizens keep right on working. Chris Dunphy, 42, and Cherie Ve Ard, 41, have been living on the road in their converted 1961 inner-city highway GM bus for nine years. They met in 2006, significantly, “right when the housing industry collapsed,” Dunphy says. Though both were prior homeowners, they sold and opted for rootlessness. 

Dunphy used to live in San Francisco and worked in tech, for Palm Inc. — the company that made the once-ubiquitous Palm Pilot. Like many who made it through the first tech boom and bubble, he re-evaluated afterward and got hooked on the idea, which he bumped into somewhere in cyberspace. Dunphy and Ve Ard’s bus — bought for $8,000 — is wired up; they work on the road, as freelance consultants and software developers. They use “cutting-edge solar and lithium-ion batteries,” Dunphy says. “We’re very high-tech.” 

Some choose the bus life for economic reasons, though from the outside they might appear to be “just a crazy hippie,” says 30-year-old Nina Nelson, whose family of six (!) lived on a bus in small-town Oregon for three years. Today, they’re not living on the bus — they moved out in July — but are hunting for their own property where they can park it. “I used to want the big house,” Nelson says, but she and her paramedic husband bought what they could afford: a 1,000-square-foot place for $110,000. “We could barely cover the mortgage.” They short-sold in 2011 and bought the bus for $3,500 soon after. A trailer was “ridiculously expensive” comparatively, she says. Plus kind of ugly.

Of course, managing to park your home is a struggle. Those who live on buses don’t like to lump themselves with RV dwellers. It’s an “aesthetic” difference, Odom says. If you’re lucky, you can find someone else’s property on which to park. Or, you can get an RV permit and try your luck, says Eli Spevak, founder of Orange Splot LLC, an Oregon-based community housing developer group. That’s Bocanegra’s plan: Register as an RV and be ready to aggressively defend his right to park where he wishes should any cops knock on his window in the middle of the night. Funnily enough, he’ll probably end up parking right next to some far uglier trailers in a flat part of the city.

Bocanegra isn’t sure how long he’ll live in his new digs. He says he’d like to have a family in the next decade. Until then, he’ll live alone. Unless he finds a “lady friend” who’s down to shack up with him. Laughing, he says: “That’d be the ideal.”

Today’s two stories are part of OZY’s weeklong series Trailer Park Nation. Read Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 here. Check back for the final two this weekend.