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South Bay residents to decide the future of neighbors who live in RVs

on November 2, 2020

In recent years, Oakland city officials have struggled to address the growing number of residents who have begun living in RVs on the city’s streets. One nearby community in the South Bay is grappling with a similar issue ahead of tomorrow’s election. 

Headquarters to Google and home to branches of companies like Microsoft and LinkedIn,  Mountain View has some of the most sought-after real estate in Silicon Valley. A stroll past its manicured yards offers a glimpse of a high-tech idyll that includes free wi-fi, highly-rated public schools and liberal-thinking residents. The median price of a home here is nearly $1.8 million, and median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $3,140, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

And that’s a problem. Many of the people who work full-time to meet the needs of this town’s highly-paid tech industry employees can’t afford to live here. The result has been clusters of RVs, parked bumper-to-bumper, scattered across Mountain View’s pristine streets. All told, about 600 people—including a special ed teacher, a 74-year-old woman from Peru who cooks for a local family and a single mother from Guatemala whose son attends a nearby elementary school—occupy the 200 RVs. 

A Mountain View RV resident stands in front of his community next to a “No on C” sign. Photo by Sabrina Armaghan Kharrazi.

Mountain View residents are considering a measure, Ballot Measure C, that would prohibit oversized vehicles from parking on streets that are 40 feet or less in width, which means most of the city’s streets would qualify. Opponents worry that the measure would amount to the eviction of the town’s RV dwellers, most of whom are undocumented and only speak Spanish.  

In 2019, Mountain View’s council tried to pass a similar measure, but attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and several law firms threatened to sue the city, citing a ruling in Boise, Idaho that outlawed displacing homeless people without offering an alternative place to live. The measure also lacked the support of Lenny Siegel, the town’s mayor at the time.

This year the council reworded the measure to focus on street safety so it would stand a better chance of passing. It has the full support of the current mayor, Margaret Abe-Koga. If passed by the community, she said, it will encourage RV residents to relocate to the city’s Safe Parking program, which was launched in April. 

The Safe Parking program was started by the non-profit Move MV in partnership with the city council and Santa Clara County to reserve 24-hour spots for people living in their vehicles. The lots provide case management, running water and a place to sleep undisturbed. 

“We had folks from Santa Barbara that have had a long-standing Safe Parking program come to our council meeting and say that you have to have parking restrictions on the streets to incentivize folks to use the lots,” said Ms. Abe-Koga. “It really goes hand-in-hand. That’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to make our Safe Parking program successful.”

But according to Dave Arnone, the head of Move MV, all 70 spots that the program offers are already taken, and there is a waiting list. The city plans to add 26 more spots, but Arnone says they are meant to accommodate cars, not RVs.

“There’s not a lot of places that will welcome them,” said Arnone, so “people will go to smaller vehicles,” like cars, raising the likelihood that waste will be dumped in the sewers. “You’re going to start seeing people sleeping outside of vehicles. You’re going to get tents. You’re going to see people sleeping in the bushes. So what’ll happen—what’s already happening—is, Mountain View is going to become like all the other communities. The safety situation will get worse, not better.” 

Another solution to Mountain View’s homelessness problem, says Abe-Koga, is a 100-unit transitional housing complex funded by a grant of $12.4 million from the state’s Project Home Key and the city. However, not only is this housing meant to be temporary, it’s an open question whether it will ever be developed. To maintain funding, according to the mayor, the city has a deadline of Dec. 31 to complete the project, but the building that currently occupies the site of the future housing project has yet to be demolished. 

In the absence of parking spaces or alternative housing, it’s not clear where the RV residents would go. Asked how they could be accommodated, Abe-Koga said, “it’s up to each individual to decide what they want to do. Some people just want to live outdoors. Something close to 10% of [homeless] folks want to be out and free. That’s what they choose, and I’m not one to judge that.”

Recreation Vehicles (RVs) line the streets of Mountain View. Photo by Sabrina Armaghan Kharrazi. 

According to Arnone, many of the people who object to the RVs are keeping a low profile, so it’s difficult to predict how the vote will go. Some supporters of the measure suspect that the RV residents are coming from out of town to take advantage of Mountain View’s lax parking rules.

Among the most outspoken proponents of the measure is Prody Hazarika, an Intel engineer whose own neighborhood in Mountain View isn’t affected because its streets are too narrow for RVs. Hazarika, who immigrated from India a couple of decades ago, argues that relocation to parking lots would provide “the basic dignified living aspects that you would expect from a developed country.” 

“We really have to motivate people to do well in life,” he adds. “And for them, we should show them a pathway. You can do a little better. You can do more. And you kind of help them get up the ladder and get back to life.”  

On the other side of the issue is Malia Pires, a volunteer who works directly with the RV residents. Pires argues that many of them have lived in Mountain View for years and have children in the local public schools. For some, it’s a struggle even to pay the $750 to $1,000 per month to rent their RVs.

Pires believes that most of the children at Mariano Castro Elementary, the closest school to a popular RV site, are homeless, a characterization that includes living in RVs. According to Education Data Partnership, 84.7% of the students there are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. 

Some RVs have no plumbing, and public facilities such as toilets and running water that were accessible in the past have been closed due to the pandemic. Residents have been forced to use portable showers or even fill up buckets of water for bathing. 

Yet for many residents, the RVs are better than their previous housing. The elderly woman from Peru mentioned a friend of hers rented an apartment closet for $200 a month. 

The woman from Guatemala, who cleans houses for a living, said that before she and her son moved into an RV, they shared a living room in an apartment with three other renters for $500 a month, and slept on the floor. 

“I don’t like to live in these kinds of places, but I have to,” said the elderly woman whose name is not disclosed because she is undocumented. “I’d rather live in a house because these are my last years. I just want to live a good life.” 

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