In August of 2015 I was exploring the suburban edge of some farmland in Sonoma County about 50 miles north of San Francisco. A chunk of territory was in the middle of being transformed by new construction. Big box stores, strip malls, drive-thru restaurants, gas stations, a hotel, and most strikingly an “Indian” resort and casino.
All the ingredients for a town were there. The land, investment capital, roads, pipes, municipal approvals, plenty of bedrooms, bathrooms, thoughtful landscaping, shops, and so on.
There was even a complete system of transportation with busses and shuttles to carry people from Point A to Point B in addition to the endless parking lots. But everything was exquisitely organized to intensionally exclude actual permanent residents. I’ve had more than a few mayors and city officials around the country explain that residents are a burden to the system, but businesses and temporary visitors are cash cows. Hence the glut of resorts, pyramids and stadiums from sea to shining sea. Add fierce resistance to new housing from legacy homeowners and this is what you get.
In the parking lots of the big box stores near the new Casino I noticed quite a few people living in old recreational vehicles. They weren’t travelers. These were their regular accommodations since homes and rentals anywhere in the region are wildly more expensive than what wage earners could manage on their collection of part time minimum wage no benefits salaries. This is in part because construction of new homes and apartments has been intentionally restricted or only allowed under very specific circumstances at exorbitant cost. Top off the housing supply problem with forty years of stagnant wages and a big slice of the population lives in elderly Winnebagos.
I enjoy talking to folks in order to understand the larger dynamics at work. It’s easy for outsiders to state the obvious. Living in a vehicle is a bad idea. It’s illegal and subjects the occupants to the scrutiny of police and private security. It’s far less convenient and stable than a proper home. A vehicle is a depreciating asset rather than a solid investment, etc. Why not just move to a less expensive location and live a normal life?
As they say… it’s complicated. Many people have relatively secure employment where they are yet live paycheck to paycheck with no savings. Picking up and moving to Tennessee or Indiana is easier said than done, especially if you don’t already know people there and have no specific job waiting for you when you arrive. Not everyone has family to fall back on. By the time you’re forced out of your home or apartment because you just can’t manage the bills a mobile living arrangement sometimes looks like the best stop gap option. And as I’m fond of saying, there is no solution that can bridge the gap between a $15 an hour job and an $800,000 home.
While I was wandering around taking photos and speaking to the RV dwellers a big shiny new truck pulled up. The driver assumed I was a journalist. He expressed his conviction that people who live in vehicles are thieves, create an unsavory environment for decent people, and should all be removed by the authorities. I asked where they should be removed to. He replied, “Not here.”
Last year I was back at the old construction site across from the casino to see how it turned out. The new hotel is a standard khrushchyovka. It’s bland, but functional with nice shrubbery. But the circumstances were a bit odd. The hotel had filled not with tourists, but with evacuees from one of the many forest fires that have been vexing the region. These were the people who either had cash on hand or were sufficiently insured against their losses.
The disaster had brought fire fighters from cities a hundred miles away and insurance companies had deployed mobile claim centers. The parking lots had all filled with many more people living in vehicles of all sorts. It was sometimes hard to tell which were families who had taken to their RVs to escape the flames rather than those who had been living in vehicles full time all along. Talking to these folks it became clear there was a broad spectrum.
Several people who owned fire damaged homes were beginning to realize they were seriously under insured. It’s all too common for homeowners to keep old policies based on the cost of replacement from the year they first bought their property. After a decade or two the cost of new construction rises far above what policies will cover. So there they were… the proud owners of a vacant lot, some charred embers, a substantial amount of residual mortgage debt, and not much in the way of savings. In some cases these folks had been renting their accommodations and had no expectation of ever finding a replacement space in a super tight market. For others their business or employer was damaged as well. “Haves” were becoming “have nots” overnight.
Cut to San Francisco this week. The current Covid situation is creating another round of such household readjustments. As more people lose their jobs or see their incomes significantly decline they slip from one category down to another. Colonies of RV dwellers are expanding in ever larger clusters in areas with the least resistance. With schools and universities closed, shopping centers shut, and tourism gone many non residential streets have become ad hoc mobile home communities.
When I speak to these folks they’re adamant they aren’t homeless. They have homes, many of which have been lovingly and pragmatically retrofitted. Living in a vehicle is a rational, if suboptimal, response to overwhelming circumstances. This is society’s de facto affordable housing “solution.” It’s our version of the favela. When friends or neighbors who still enjoy comfortable homes insist the caravans be disbanded by the authorities I remind them we’re all one earthquake away from a similar fate. They don’t like that suggestion very much…