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A rent-free place, if you can find a spot to park
Updated: 2004-05-08 10:52

Other people moan and groan about sky-high rents and real estate in New York City. Jimmy Hines, 50, has found a solution: living rent-free in an R.V.

"It's my apartment on wheels," he said, leaning back this week in his faded 27-foot Gulfstream Sun Sport camper that was sitting on a fairly busy Queens street, wedged next to the curb in a line of parked cars.

Last fall, Mr. Hines gave notice on the Queens apartment he was renting and bought a camper with his savings. It is his sixth month living curbside in the camper, and he swears he will never have a landlord again.

Mr. Hines is no skylarking eccentric looking to prove a point about human self-sufficiency. He is rather a man pushed to an extreme situation by extreme circumstances: the New York City housing market.

He parked the rig on a busy stretch of Main Street south of the Long Island Expressway, on the edge of a commercial strip in an Orthodox section of Kew Gardens Hills, where streets are lined with kosher food shops and boxy brick houses.

Stepping out his front door to the sidewalk, he faces a cemetery. To the right is a bus stop and to the left a gas station. In accordance with city parking regulations, he moves the vehicle at 7 a.m. on Mondays for one half-hour, for street cleaning.

Mr. Hines said he was paying $900 a month for an apartment on Kissena Boulevard. He had recently lost his job as a vending machine repairman and was receiving a $150 weekly unemployment check.

"I started really thinking about what they're getting for an apartment in the city these days and I figured: `Why should I keep paying rent? It's crazy,' " he said.

So Mr. Hines took most of his savings and bought the 1987 Sun Sport for $6,000. He began living in the camper in December. Rather than ramble to less expensive areas, Mr. Hines wanted to stay in Queens, where he was born and raised and still near his friends.

"It was the wisest thing to do, considering my conditions," he said, stretching out in the camper on a smallish bed that barely accommodates his 6-foot frame.

The place rivals some Manhattan studio apartments. Mr. Hines, who is single, keeps the place like a typical bachelor pad. There are dishes in the sink, overflowing ashtrays and a picture of his first hot rod. Traffic whooshes by, several feet from his window. He keeps his shades down for privacy.

"Don't mind the place, it's a bit of a mess," he said, showing a visitor around on Thursday. The inside of the R.V. has shag carpet, simulated wood paneling and floral-patterned wallpaper. There is a comfortable couch, and some swivel seats next to a smallish table. In the rear, past the bathroom, refrigerator and closets, is a small bedroom with twin beds.

His kitchen console includes a four-range stove, oven and refrigerator, all powered by propane. A gas-powered generator provides electricity and heat. Mr. Hines also keeps perishables in a plastic cooler, replenished daily with store-bought ice.

His portable toilet deposits the waste in plastic bags, which he puts in street trash cans. For water, he fills up large jugs at a gas station. Without a water hookup, he takes showers at a friend's or at the gym at Queens College. His mail is sent to a friend's house.

After paying $500 a year for auto insurance, camper living is incredibly inexpensive, Mr. Hines said. Except for extreme hot or cold weather, he pays about $10 a week for propane, for which he must drive the camper to Nassau County for refills. He pays $25 a week in gasoline for the generator.

He spends $7 a day on cigarettes, $4 on coffee and the rest on food.

"I make a mean chicken cordon bleu in that oven," he said. "I don't even have an excuse to eat out."

He has a 9-inch color television with a built-in DVD player for movie rentals. He is set to buy a satellite dish for more channels.

"It's got everything my apartment had, except space," he said. "But who has a lot of space in New York?"

He holds regular poker games with his friends and has even taken a date back to the camper.

"The guys like coming here to get away from their old ladies," he said, adding that they debate what is crazier: living as an urban camper, or a lifetime of indentured servitude to a mortgage?

"A lot of my friends have kids and bills and they're all bald," Mr. Hines said. "Me, I'm not living large, but life is still good. I'm living on my own terms. I have an apartment on wheels. I can pick up and go whenever and wherever I want."

Mr. Hines grew up in Flushing. His camper is parked near John Bowne High School, which he attended. Mr. Hines calls himself "a product of the 60's" and wears his hair in a ponytail, his head wrapped in an American flag bandanna.

The high cost of housing has forced people in Manhattan to go home to the Midwest and other locales, and some with fewer resources go homeless. But for a man from Queens with meager means and a few friends, living in camper just made sense.

There is a steady stream of people on the sidewalk who pass his camper and another, larger R.V. that Mr. Hines said was owned and parked nearby by a local homeowner. But few take notice, even when Mr. Hines is standing in his doorway sipping his coffee.

No one has tried to intrude on his domain, he said. A police officer did drop by a week ago, he said, to say that there had been a complaint about the noise from the generator, but Mr. Hines said he was not bothered.

"I think he just wanted to check me out," said Mr. Hines, who says his living situation is totally legal.

Is it? A half-dozen city agencies could not answer the question. A spokeswoman for the Department of Buildings said it had no jurisdiction. ("It's not hooked up to any utilities, so it doesn't seem like a dwelling.")

But Keith Kalb, a spokesman for the city's Department of Transportation, said that traffic rules prohibit keeping boat trailers, mobile homes and mobile medical diagnostic vehicles on city streets for more than 24 hours at a time, although the regulations are usually enforced only in response to complaints.

Several merchants in the area said Mr. Hines had done very little to attract attention in the past five months, so they gave little thought to why the camper was even there.

David Fisher, 79, a retired auditor who lives nearby, walked by the camper on Thursday. He did a double-take at Mr. Hines in the doorway.

"I see him here all the time, and I wondered if it's legal to live in that thing," Mr. Fisher said. "It takes up parking space and is a bit of an eyesore, but if the man needs it, I guess it's necessary."

He added: "It's a unique solution. I wish him luck."

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