California Cities Face Growing Crisis As RVs Become Homes Of Last Resort

By Louis Hansen The Mercury News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Bay Area cities have for years generally taken a hands-off approach toward RV camps. But as housing prices continue to rise and more residents are being pushed into alternative forms of housing, local officials are starting to conduct more aggressive parking enforcement.

SAN JOSE, Calif.

Robert Ramirez lives in an old RV, parked curbside in an industrial section of San Jose.

He knows that one day soon he'll get a knock on his door. Police will politely ask him to move. Neither party will be happy, Ramirez said, but he'll agree to go.

It's happened before, and he expects it will happen again, no matter how hard he tries to be a good neighbor and keep his vehicle and sidewalk clean. He lives on public assistance and collecting recyclables. "I have to do whatever I have to do," he said.

Bay Area cities are coming to realize what Ramirez already knows, parking tickets won't solve the problem of finding a place to live. From Oakland to San Jose, officials are struggling to cope with a growing influx of RV dwellers seeking a safe, permanent place for the only homes they can afford.

"We've never seen it like this," said Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency of Mountain View, where the city averages more than three complaints a day about RV communities. "We have to be prepared that this will be the new normal for us. It's a crisis."

The homeless population has grown in the Bay Area, which has some of the highest median incomes in the nation. The number of residents in Alameda County lacking permanent shelter rose nearly 40 percent since 2015, with 5,600 people now considered homeless, according to a federal census this year. The homeless population in Santa Clara County rose 13 percent. While many RV residents don't consider themselves homeless, they are often included in overall homeless counts.

Bay Area cities have for years generally taken a laissez faire attitude toward RV camps, often responding only to neighborhood complaints. But as housing prices and rents rise, the median cost of a two-bedroom apartment is now about $2,500 in San Jose and $2,200 in Oakland, more residents are being pushed into alternative forms of housing.

As a result, local officials across the region are starting to conduct more aggressive parking enforcement and outreach to address housing for the working poor.

In Mountain View, officials say the increase in residents living in RVs and vehicles has led to a corresponding jump in complaints to the city. Neighbors report RVs parked near homes, and litter and garbage around trailers. In the last fiscal year, Mountain View police received 1,250 complaints about RVs and inhabited vehicles, a city spokeswoman said.

Myers said Mountain View has funded a staff member at the Community Services Agency to deal specifically with residents living in cars. Families sheltered in RVs have different needs than the traditional homeless population, including finding money to pay for vehicle repairs, he said.

"You're not just towing a vehicle, you're towing someone's home," Myers said.

In Palo Alto, police this summer enforced 72-hour parking restrictions along El Camino Real next to Stanford University, where they estimated about 40 vehicles were parked.

But Palo Alto spokeswoman Claudia Keith acknowledged that simply moving the RVs doesn't solve the underlying problem: a lack of affordable housing. "It's not just a city problem. It's regional," Keith said.

Alicia Garcia, associate director of the nonprofit Project WeHOPE serving homeless clients in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, said the agency has had a four-fold increase in clients living in RVs.

The RV communities have popped up everywhere, she said, like abandoned department store parking lots in Oakland and the streets around high-tech campuses in Silicon Valley.

Most RV residents work, including some with high-paying tech jobs who have chosen to downsize, she said. Others are working poor, priced out of Bay Area apartments. Many can't afford the rent at RV or mobile home parks, which often have long waiting lists for spaced.

"People who live in RVs don't consider themselves homeless," Garcia said. "Rent is too expensive. They look at living in an RV as a viable option."

Leaders of WeHope, which is based in East Palo Alto, have met with city leaders to come up with a solution to the problem, she said. Several churches have volunteered to allow the mobile homes in their parking lots, according to Garcia, but city leaders are still looking for new guidelines to address the RV camps.

Last month, the city ordered about a dozen RVs to move before a rainstorm from Weeks Street, a low-lying road prone to flooding. City officials said some of the RVs had been dumping raw sewage into the street and storm sewers, creating a health risk for residents.

Community leaders acknowledge that writing parking tickets will not help the RV community find more stable housing. Santa Barbara began a different approach more than a decade ago with a safe-parking program for RVs.

Recently, said Cassie Roach, coordinator for the New Beginnings Safe Parking Program in Santa Barbara, the nonprofit has consulted with several Bay Area city officials and religious leaders.

New Beginnings has contracts for about 130 spaces in 23 parking lots at churches, private businesses and government facilities. RV residents apply for a free parking permit, and can stay as long as they wish. The nonprofit provides basic security and liability insurance coverage for lot owners, Roach said. It also helps residents find social services and support agencies to help establish long-term housing.

As in Silicon Valley, most of Santa Barbara's RV dwellers have jobs but were forced out of homes and apartments by high housing prices. "By and large, these are just average individuals who have fallen on hard circumstances," Roach said

Along South 7th St. in San Jose, near the San Jose State football stadium, a small community of RVs and campers has formed a makeshift neighborhood. The street had ample parking and sits across from a mobile home park and a large, family-owned RV repair shop, Leale's.

Leale's operations manager Babette Shelton said they sometimes offer the RV owners odd jobs in the shop, which services luxury motor coaches and buses. The RV residents also call or walk in, looking for advice or parts to fix their vehicles, she said.

"We've seen it really boom in the last few years," Shelton said. "These are human beings, looking for help." San Jose is researching new RV safe parking guidelines to present to the City Council next year, said Ray Bramson, acting deputy director of the San Jose Housing Department. But for now, city officials periodically roll through the street to enforce parking restrictions.

RV residents along 7th Street said police have been polite and helpful, but they ultimately force the campers to move. Ramirez has already moved his camper, with the help of friends who have a car. He would definitely join a waiting list for affordable housing.

He figures he could afford $300 a month, but he would have to spend more time collecting cans, bottles and scrap metal to make that rent.

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