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Housing costs send some in California to RVs

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-09-17 02:32
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Marvin and his family moved into a recreational vehicle on a street in Mountain View, California, two years ago, after their apartment rent became unaffordable.

The 27-year-old Walmart employee, who gave only his first name, now lives with his mother, elder sister, younger brother and his sister's 4-year-old daughter in the RV, which has two beds, a sofa bed and a sofa.

Despite the lack of personal space and the roar of trains whizzing by, Marvin said living in the RV is convenient, as the family can use bathrooms in a nearby park and shower at a gym. The biggest upside is the cost: the RV rental is only $500 a month.

"We can save up more money. I hope we can move into apartment and my niece can go to a kindergarten," he said.

Dozens of camper vans and RVs are parked on Crisanto Avenue. Some are in a dilapidated state with rusted side panels; some of the windows are covered with aluminum foil; one van has a flat tire on the back.

Another van, whose windows are not fully covered, is packed with so many items that one can hardly imagine there¡¯s any living space left.

The people in vehicles parked on Crisanto Avenue and on other streets in several California cities are the fallout from the state's lack of affordable housing. California has the nation's steepest home prices and the highest state poverty rate once housing costs are figured in, according to officials.

Not all those sleeping in vehicles are without a job. Some have been priced out of renting an apartment or house or somehow have economically been forced out of their homes.

Maria, a woman in her 60s, recently became an RV resident after losing her job in a nursery due to knee problems.

"Her husband still works at the nursery. She relies on her husband now. I also take care of her sometimes," Rosario, Maria's niece, told China Daily, as Maria doesn't speak English.

Rosario, who preferred to be identified by his first name only, said most of the RV dwellers there are experiencing similar situations. What makes the situation difficult is that they are often forced to move their vehicles by police or get parking tickets, she said.

A similar scene took place along Church Street, outside Eagle Park, about a 30-minute walk from Crisanto Avenue. A resident said the street has been an RV park at least for the two years since he moved here.

About two miles from the park in Mountain View is the sprawling headquarters of Google. The tech company, which has 45,000 employees in the region, has been criticized by activists for contributing to rising rents and a housing shortage.

Google and other tech giants such as Facebook and Apple have been urged to accept responsibility and to address their impact on rents and housing prices. In June, Google announced it would invest $1 billion to develop affordable housing and address homelessness in the region.

In Mountain View, rents have increased 50 percent since 2010, according to a report by activist group Silicon Valley Rising in April 2018.

"Unaffordable rents have pushed working people in Mountain View into the RVs that now line many city streets," says the report.

In Santa Clara County, the center of Silicon Valley, the homeless population has increased by 31 percent since 2017, and now stands at about 9,706, according to the county's 2019 homeless census and survey.

This year's survey found 18 percent of the respondents staying in a vehicle, a "substantial" increase from previous years. The number of individuals living in cars, RVs and vans has increased 146 percent since 2015, reaching 3,655 individuals in 2019.

People are living in vehicles not just because of the high cost of housing but also because they have encountered personal events that led to financial challenges, or they prefer sleeping in an RV or car to long daily commutes, according to a recent report by Palo Alto's Policy and Services Committee.

"I stay here on weekdays only," said Andrew, who gave only his first name, while cleaning his trailer parked on El Camino Real, just outside Stanford University in Palo Alto.

The plumber has been working on construction sites at Stanford University in the past few years. But his family lives in Sacramento, 120 miles away, for the low rents there.

The round trip usually takes him six hours, so he chooses to sleep in the trailer during the week and go home on weekends to join his wife and son.

He said he knew several construction workers living in RVs as well. "It's easy to find work but difficult to find a place to live," he said.

The mile-long stretch of El Camino Real is lined with vans, RVs and cars. Residents have been complaining about safety, "blight caused by unkempt RVs", sanitation issues and parking impact, according to the city's Policy and Services Committee report.

Many other cities in California have reported an increase in people living in RVs, small campers and cars on residential streets, in industrial parks and church parking lots.

In San Francisco, 1,794 people live in vehicles, which accounts for 68 percent of the rise in homeless population between 2017 and 2019, according to the city's homeless count released in May.

The city of Oakland found the number of people living in vehicles in 2019 almost doubled that of 2017.

In the Greater Los Angeles area, more than 16,500 people were living in their cars, vans and RVs in 2019, almost 1,000 more than last year, according to the area's homeless count.

California had about 130,000 homeless people as of 2018, according to the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. The number is second-highest in state history after the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 left more than 200,000 people homeless.

A recent survey by Quinnipiac University found that more than 80 percent of the 1,125 Californian voters say homelessness in California is a "very serious" issue and that nearly 60 percent of them say the cost of housing is a major cause.

San Francisco is the most expensive rental market in the US, followed by New York and Boston, according to a June report by San Francisco-based rental platform Zumper. Average rent for a one bedroom is $3,700, and two bedrooms is $4,720, says the report.

In San Jose, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,524 a month; in Mountain View, rents for a two-bedroom have reached nearly $4,000 a month, as Google has pursued aggressive expansion plans, according to the Silicon Valley Rising report.

The affordable housing crisis, partly due to wages not keeping pace with low-wage families' housing costs, has forced the families to cram together in small apartments and make unhealthy trade-offs between rent and other essentials, according to the report.

The cities, under the pressure to get RV dwellers off the street, are launching "safe parking programs". Mountain View has partnered with non-profit organizations to use a former light-rail stop as a parking site for vehicle-dwellers and eventually, an affordable housing project. Palo Alto is in the process of selecting potential sites.

San Francisco also is taking action on opening a Vehicle Triage Center near a railway station, which would provide safe parking and basic services – bathrooms, sanitation and social services –to people living in vehicles.

The proposal by Supervisor Ahsha Safai was met with strong opposition from local residents who consider the RV dwellers a nuisance or an eyesore that brings down the value of their communities.

Despite the residents' protest, San Francisco has recently approved the proposal to transform a parking lot into a safe lot for vehicle-dwellers. The pilot program for 33 RVs and cars would last a year. After that, the land would be turned into affordable housing by the city.

Those that are living in vehicles are not the "hardcore homeless" that people think about, such as those with drug addictions or mental health issues, said Safai. "They are a very different subset of the homeless population," he said.

Dozens of RVs and vans parked along Crisanto Avenue, close to Rengstorff Park in Mountain View, California. 

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