Just Too Simple a Solution?

Becky O'Malley
Friday March 29, 2019 - 05:15:00 PM

There is general agreement in the Bay Area, or certainly in Berkeley, that we now have a shortage of housing for low-income people, even those who are fully employed. Today’s Chronicle reports that the median home purchase in Alameda County is now about $785,000, and in neighboring counties it’s over a million. And that’s the median. The rental situation is even worse, so many Bay Area workers are left out.

It’s tempting to believe we can build our way out of this situation, particularly if we took those beginning econ classes in high school or college. A little learning is a dangerous thing, but if you got into the more sophisticated realms, beyond that old hat neo-liberal trickle-down theory, you’d learn that it would take something like 50 years for the kind of apartments now being thrown up all over Berkeley to become available to the masses at affordable prices. Also, these shoddily built rentals can be expected to fall apart after about 40 years, so do the math. Yes, they do have marble counters in the kitchen, but they’re structurally shaky--remember Library Gardens.

Lately there’s been a lot of theorizing about novel ways to solve the Bay Area’s shortage of affordable housing. “Affordable” is a term of art fraught with peril, since in some definitions it means accessible to two-income families earning more than $100,000 a year. But even in those rare jurisdictions which mandate a $15/hour minimum wage (not yet Berkeley) that only adds up to $30,000/year from a single wage earner, many of whom are supporting dependents. Where are these families supposed to live? 

One reason that housing is expensive here is the shortage of buildable land in the Bay Area, constricted as it is by mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. Recently some Berkeley City Councilmembers have seized on the idea of rezoning single-family areas so that more homes can be added to already-developed neighborhoods. But UCLA Geographer Michael Storper commented that ”If you look at the bigger picture of economics and metropolitan growth, you’ll see that we need aggressive, ambitious policies aimed at, not just increasing housing density, but also inclusivity. No policy that doesn’t offer a substantial set-aside of housing at about half the market rate is going to have any chance of dealing with displacement in a meaningful way.” 

If you allow four homes to be built on a given lot, the land will become approximately four times as valuable. As a result, each home will cost more to build and therefore will need to sell for more. With the Bay Area’s current tech boom, ready buyers are easy to find no matter how much the price is inflated, so low-income workers are priced out. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could come up with a method of cheaply constructing small homes which could easily be placed on unused urban sites, and even moved around if better sites became available? There’s been a flurry of interest among architecture students and home builders in the idea of “tiny homes”, designed to be inexpensive and moveable, but only a few demonstration models have actually been built. 

Now, however, a group of forward-looking citizens has figured out how to get these homes. They’ve seized upon a truly practical idea. 

It’s called “buying an RV.” That’s right, practical moveable small homes have been been around for a long time, and they sell for a lot less than $700,000. 

Even before RVs (sold as “recreational vehicles” but livable all the time for many) added engines to the package, there were towable “mobile homes, which were called “trailers” in the olden days. 

They worked just fine. 

I know this because I spent a summer in a cute little trailer somewhat smaller than today’s RVs, with a two-year-old and a very tall husband, and I was 8 months pregnant to boot. This was in Bloomington, Indiana, where the temperature got up to 110 on occasions. With the addition of a beach umbrella and a couple of lawn chairs, we were comfortably housed. 

Last Tuesday a couple of hundred people, including me, wasted three or four hours of our lives listening to the City Council gnash their teeth about complaints that RV owners have been parking on Berkeley streets. Oh, the horror. 

The reported grievances boiled down to littering, parking violations and discharging human waste into storm sewers. All of these are amply covered by existing laws—why aren’t they just enforced? Why do we need new laws to drive the well-behaved residents away? 

Mind you, the complaining homeowners whose grievances were invoked were, with a couple of exceptions, nowhere to be seen. They appeared to be part of what Richard Nixon called The Silent Majority, per Wikipedia “an unspecified large group of people in a country or group who do not express their opinions publicly.” Such people have been alleged to live somewhere in the political cloud for most of my adult life, but I’m happy to say I've seldom if ever meet them in reality. 

Many of those who did speak in the public comment period at the council meeting on Tuesday were articulate Berkeley RV dwellers. They included a couple of the usual anti-social rowdies, but also a young African-American family who want to live in Berkeley because of the good schools, a recent student at U.C.’s Journalism School, a retired veteran and others, all part of what used to be a typical Berkeley mix. 

The saddest part of a dispiriting evening was comments from two well-dressed boys, perhaps 10 and 12 years old, bought to the microphone by their father. The younger one identified himself as an elementary school student, and said that a white RV which sometimes parked in front of his school frightened him so much that he needed to call his parents to walk him home much of the time. His brother, more of a middle school age, said that he also was frightened a lot of the time. 

Then the father stepped up and used his sons’ fearfulness to justify asking for a ban on RVs. It was a pathetic display of what seemed to be baseless anxiety. 

If we do nothing else, we need to open a dialogue between those who live in vehicles because they can’t afford other housing and the people whose houses (or schools) they park near. It sounds kinda corny,a cliché, but on Tuesday what kept running through my head was a line from Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address: there's nothing to fear but fear itself. 

Couldn’t one of those worried parents just knock on the door of the RV home and find out who lives there? Or wait until someone comes out and strike up a conversation? They might be surprised by what they'd find out. 

One of the best things about raising kids in Berkeley, I always thought, is that they learned to be comfortable with everyone, anywhere in the world. They’ve led interesting lives because of this. 

How deeply sad that these little boys have instead learned to be afraid. Is this what our children are learning these days? Rogers and Hammerstein got it right: they have to be carefully taught. 


Can we do better? 

And while we're at it, can we find a place for our friends who live in vehicles to park and live safely and legally? How about an RV/trailer park somewhere? 

The council voted 6-3 on Tuesday for a bad law full of loopholes which ultimately would drive RV dwellers out of Berkeley, though enforcement will be suspended until the staff comes up with a workable permitting scheme, which might be never. 

Thanks to Councilmembers Harrison, Davila and Robinson for holding out for a better solution.