NewsSan Francisco

For Some, the Choice Is RV Dwelling or the Street

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With people struggling to survive in the Bay Area, more and more have turned to living in vehicles, RVs or cars, but many cities are turning them away.

Poverty is unattractive to the fortunate few who can afford mortgages or soaring rent. Tech bros don’t want the inconvenience of stepping over homeless people on sidewalks. Affluent neighborhoods push back on shelter developments with vitriol. Now, it’s unacceptable if someone’s Audi space is accosted by people trying to park their live-in RVs overnight. As if it’s not bad enough to be poor and desperate, the poor and desperate have to worry about being perceived as blight.

And let’s remember that it doesn’t take much to slip into poverty here in the Bay Area, where a single person living in San Francisco, San Mateo or Marin counties is now considered low-income if they earn $82,200 a year. If you’re sitting somewhere in the top 10 percent of tech wage earners, you’re probably doing just fine, but for the rest of us, the pay is not matching the payout – making RVs look less like a luxury and more like a necessity.

RV dwelling in Silicon Valley. Photo courtesy of New York Post.

Cities have been quick to ban overnight RV parking, either neighborhood by neighborhood, like what we’ve seen in San Francisco or citywide as in the case of Berkeley – either way, it’s abundantly clear that RVs aren’t any more welcome than tent encampments are. Officials approach both situations in a similar fashion: they sweep people out and establish shelters or approved areas that will only accommodate a fraction of the population they just swept out.

At the end of April, San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a pilot program to allow for “safe overnight parking” with “triage” resources available while people figure out how to find immobile housing, although it is unclear how many vehicles the established area will permit. If the similar East Palo Alto pilot program launched Tuesday is any indication, it will be woefully inadequate – they can only take in 16 of the 48 applicants and the rest will sit on a waiting list.

The new line of thinking is ordinance change, making it legal for private properties (churches, schools, etc.) to open their parking lots to RV and vehicle dwellers seeking a safe space and maybe the perk of a bathroom. But again, these are temporary solutions that fall short of the needs and at the end of the day, we still have to contend with severe income equality and a full-blown housing crisis in the Bay Area that a few open parking lots cannot fix.

According to, the average cost of living in the Bay Area was 37 percent higher than the average household income in 2015, a 2018 cost spike compounded the situation. Zillow data through the end of March calculates median rent in San Francisco at $4,500 and $3,300 throughout the greater metropolitan area (noting that those individual cities vary widely).

Line of RVs in San Francisco, Calif. Photo courtesy of NBC Bay Area

If we go by the old rule of thirds, where rent should not exceed more than a third of gross monthly income, someone hoping to land a median rental in San Francisco would have to earn close to $14,000 a month and those in the surrounding metropolitan Bay Area region would have to rake in just about $10,000.

Although the unemployment rate is incredibly low, it is also fluffed by the increase of low-paying, part-time, gig-type jobs that don’t come anywhere near making it possible to sustain four solid walls in the place we call home.

Simply leaving the Bay Area is not an option for everyone – some have families and roots here that go back multiple generations and heading somewhere new and more affordable is not always practical.

So, next time you see an RV parked out on your street, instead of calling code enforcement, maybe just suck it up and leave them be. After all, in a region so difficult to survive in, it very well could be you.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.


  1. Seth
    April 20, 2020 at 7:22 am

    i think part of the issue is that RV dwellers have little to no way of legally disposing of trash and emptying their septic tanks in san francisco. so there are quality of life side effects (for both RV dwellers and neighbors), similar to the quality of life side effects of an encampment. “suck it up and leave them be” is fine unless they are creating a mess, then what?

    • Bryan
      April 20, 2020 at 7:24 am

      > “suck it up and leave them be” is fine unless they are creating a mess, then what?

      Honestly I think the biggest issue is actually “taking my parking!” or “it’s an eyesore!”

      I saw someone put a note on an old RV (mentioning trash, smell, etc) that I knew for a fact wasn’t dumping (they had converted the bathroom area into storage, the only water they used was for cooking/drinking, and they generated almost no trash; what little they did went into trash bins on the sidewalk or on the streets on trash day). So no idea where she got her ideas.

      But yeah there’s a definite lack of showers, toilets, black water dumping, public trash cans, etc. that would improve many people’s lives. (More van dwellers than RV dwellers, I would say. And many van folks don’t even have toilets.)

      Berkeley has done the most to restrict RVs/vans on the streets (no parking if longer than X’, taller than Y’, no parking between 0200-0600 every night, 2hr parking w/o resident permit just about everywhere, etc) in the bay area, but SF is catching up.