On Election Day 2020, 57 percent of voters in Mountain View, Calif., passed a ballot measure to address what many housed in the Silicon Valley town viewed as a growing civic issue: people living in RVs. A street count from July 2020 found 191 recreational vehicles [RVs] parked on city streets, with 68 parked in an approved city-run lot. With the measure’s approval, city staff could ban most RV residents from remaining in Mountain View via “no parking” signs. Nearly a year later, the measure’s future is unknown; soon after voters approved the ban, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California and the Law Foundation of the Silicon Valley filed a class action suit against the city, arguing it was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
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Though the lawsuit is ongoing, city workers started installing “no oversize parking” signs on nearly all of the city’s streets in August, at a cost of $1 million, severely limiting places where recreational vehicle residents could park in Mountain View. It is just one city among dozens taking action to remove RVs and those who live in them through such bans.
“There were more people against us than for us,” Janet Stevens, 63, a plaintiff named in the lawsuit, said of the November election. “[But] it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with street safety.” For Stevens, who has watched the city change as more tech company employees have moved in, the fight around housing affordability and the RV ban comes down to Nimbyism and “a lack of support and true understanding of who [vehicle dwellers] are to start with.”
The lawsuit underscores Stevens’ analysis. “[Mountain View] is in the heart of Silicon Valley where, in recent years, an economic stratification has yielded significant wealth for some, but skyrocketing housing prices for all,” the complaint read. “As a result, many of Mountain View’s long-time residents have been priced out of the housing market and forced to live in [RVs] parked on the City’s streets.” Most of those living in recreational vehicles, like Stevens, grew up in Mountain View, lived in the city as adults, and rely on city services to survive. Stevens is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and has chronic fatigue syndrome and high blood pressure. In addition to her friends and neighbors, Stevens’ medical team and support group are located in Mountain View. “If I was to leave here I don’t know. [I’d be in] deep, deep trouble being able to find doctors that were understanding and willing to support my treatment for my diseases that have multiple realms of symptomatology,” Stevens said.
Proponents of the ban say it’s not so much the recreational vehicle residency itself, but the eyesore of the oversize vehicles, the waste disposal on city streets, and the lack of regulation. Advocates for equitable housing policy counter by saying Measure C is a proxy ban on poor people: a targeted attack on the city’s residents who can’t afford the increasing rent prices in one of the most expensive regions in the country. While the median household income in Mountain View has doubled in the past twenty years, income inequality in the Silicon Valley has ballooned, growing at twice the state and national rate. Almost 20 percent of the region’s households have no savings. For many, the area rent — now $2,500 per month — is impossible to afford.
“It’s getting worse and worse,” said Nantiya Ruan, a professor of law at the University of Denver. “Inequity and that imbalance of power just means that people become more and more disadvantaged and pushed out of communities and don’t have a voice in government and everything else that stems from that.”
According to Ruan, this leaves wealthy residents with even more authority. “There is a lot of power for communities to regulate how their space is used,” she explains. “And so, what municipalities are doing is making it hostile for those who need to sleep in their car or sleep in their RV by doing all sorts of different zoning code laws.”
The history of targeting and discriminating against undesired community members is baked into the American legal framework. Redlining is the most well-known example of this. In addition to the federally sanctioned segregation that kept Black people from building wealth in well-to-do neighborhoods, so-called “sundown town” laws forbade non-white people from remaining within city limits after the sun set. Oregon banned Black people, and some municipalities required Native, Japanese, and Jewish people to leave by 6:30 each evening. California also maintained an “anti-Okie” law, which banned unemployed people and migrant workers from entering the state in 1937.
Ruan argues these policies live on in the network of bans on RV residency, though — unlike discriminatory laws of the 20th century — vehicle laws don’t explicitly target poor people. Even if they did, given that there’s no constitutional protection for economic status, Ruan says, making these laws difficult to challenge in court. These laws are “really about focusing on keeping people out of public space and therefore out of [public] consciousness,” Ruan said. “[The laws] keep them from being visible, right? [Politicians think] nobody wants to see visible poverty.”
Mountain View isn’t the only city instituting laws on vehicle residency. Los Angeles instituted its own ban against parking for “habitation purposes” in 2017, affecting the then-total of 7,000 homeless people living in their cars. Neighboring suburbs of Los Angeles, such as Culver City, Santa Monica, and Malibu all have bans on sleeping in one’s car overnight. This April, Carlsbad city officials updated their city codes to include a ban on camping within city limits as well as parking oversize vehicles overnight on city streets. Those who want to park their vehicles within city limits overnight are now required to obtain a 24-hour permit and are restricted to acquiring six permits per month. In August, city council members in Flagstaff, Ariz., voted to keep a law on the books that bans camping — including vehicle camping — at the dismay of locals who have been pushed out of their homes by increased housing prices and wildfire. Following the approval of an ordinance that requires residents to move their vehicles every three days, the city of Eugene, Ore., is considering its own parking ban in “industrial commercial areas.” And in Lacey, Wash., plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit against the city for effectively banning RVs and those who live in them by way of a city ordinance that limits the number of hours a vehicle can be parked on the street.
In lieu of providing housing, some cities are creating “safe parking” programs with dedicated spaces like church parking lots where vehicle residents can park overnight. Mountain View has one such program, and plays host to a third of all safe parking lots in Santa Clara County, but there aren’t enough spots for every person who needs one. Moreover, Stevens says she applied three times for a safe parking spot but never heard back. Even if she had been approved, she doubts she would have accepted, given the lot’s restrictions.
Katie Calhoun, a PhD student at the University of Denver who studied the efficacy of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, says it’s common for safe parking programs to have restrictions, such as prohibiting the consumption of alcohol. Designated safe parking lots did make residents feel safer in Denver, though the average duration of stay in the safe lot was three months, after which just under half of vehicle residents continued to live in their car.
The City of Mountain View could address the claims of public safety concerns by establishing a waste disposal site where residents can easily access it and pushing for more safe lots. And, of course, the city could stop exacerbating the housing crisis by, among other things, not approving the destruction of rent-controlled apartments. For those who aren’t able to access a safe lot in cities with vehicle residency bans, there aren’t many alternatives aside from risking a police encounter, potential arrest, or moving to a town that doesn’t have a ban on the books.
As for that eventuality, Stevens says, “There is no preparation for that. Except for maybe, you know, driving around looking for a town where they’ll accept me to live.”