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RV Safe Parking Program launches: Inside East Palo Alto’s housing affordability crisis

The RV Safe Parking Program, designed to provide up to 20 local RV dwellers with designated overnight parking space and access to restrooms, portable showers and laundry services, was launched in East Palo Alto on May 1.

The initiative comes as Palo Alto’s housing affordability crisis continues to intensify, where large numbers of people have increasingly moved into RVs and motorhomes due to rising housing prices in areas such as East Bay, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

The Safe Parking program

Between 7:30 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., RV residents can park in the safe lot, which is located at 1798 Bay Road and monitored by city security guards. The time limit is set in accordance with city zoning laws, which prohibit the usage of the lot as a permanent parking facility.

The program is a one-year pilot, with the majority of funding coming from the city’s general fund and from Measure O, a voter-approved business-license tax on residential rentals. Geared towards veterans, families, seniors and disabled persons, the $300,000 city-approved program is run by Project WeHope, a nonprofit that aims to provide shelter and support to East Palo Alto’s homeless population.

The City Council unanimously approved the project in July 2018 in response to the shelter crisis of East Palo Alto, a citywide declaration under Government Code 8698 that a certain number of people do not have access to housing, causing safety or health issues.

Over the past year of planning, city officials aimed to identify a location that can be used for a 24-hour RV parking, but were unsuccessful.

“For about the last 15 to 18 months, we have been working with the city to develop a safe parking program specifically for RVs,” said Alicia Garcia, the Project WeHope Associate Director, in an interview with Palo Alto Online.

Mountain View may soon follow East Palo Alto in developing a safe parking initiative for RVs. The city declared a shelter crisis in March, and the Mountain View City Council is moving towards voting on a lease proposal for land at the southwest corner of East Evelyn Avenue and Pioneer Way.

Housing affordability

Housing prices and rent costs have been consistently rising for years in the Bay Area. In 2019, the average rent for a two-bedroom Palo Alto apartment was priced at $3,163 on the website RentCafe. This marks a 4-percent increase from the already-pricey numbers of the previous year.

However, while housing prices may be rising, the salaries and paychecks of many blue-collar and service workers have not. The constant struggle to stay on top of bills has increased economic burdens and affected quality of life for many Bay Area residents.

Moving into an RV is one of the only alternatives for citizens who aren’t able to afford increasing housing costs — and often, the only way they can continue to support themselves and their families. As of the 2017 census, San Mateo County estimated that a third of its 1,250 homeless population lived in a vehicle.

Jose Rodriguez, spokesman for the RV Families Association of East Palo Alto, is a construction laborer and U.S. military veteran who is currently out of work due to disabilities. He lives with his family in ‘Cooley Landing’ in East Palo Alto, a small community of nearly 50 RVs.

More funding from the billionaires of Silicon Valley needs to go toward solving the problem they created, Rodriguez told Peninsula Press. Local communities try to solve the problem, he added, while the desperate realities of transient living pervade daily life.

Others, such as Scott Rodvold, have also faced the burden of the housing affordability crisis. A disabled father, Rodvold stated that a combination of factors such as his health, financial difficulties and his divorce have forced him and his 12-year-old son to live in a motorhome.

“I had no choice,” said Rodvold to FOX KTVU. “It was either to live in my van or live in a park or live in the streets just right over here.”

RV dwellers, though, have been facing backlash from the city public. Worried about trash and sewage problems, urban parking space issues and public safety concerns, the city has been looking for solutions for over a year. Many RV residents have also been threatened with eviction, yet they have no place left to go.

“The RV situation is not going to go away,” said Ruben Abrica, a member of the East Palo Alto city council, in an interview with The Mercury News. “They have no other place to go, so they end up on the street.”

The need for long-term solutions

East Palo Alto’s RV Safe Parking program is the first of its kind in the area, pioneering an intervention that was previously missing from cities facing housing shortages. Within a week of its inception, there has already been much praise for the initiative, especially from those living in RVs.

Randolph Parker, one of the first program participants to arrive at the lot, stated to Palo Alto Online that he’s glad to finally be able to park at night without the worry of harassment. To be quietly left alone is a “blessing in itself,” he said.

While the Safe Parking initiative marks the first of its type, there is still much work to be done in both Palo Alto and surrounding cities. Project WeHope, for example, is actively working to facilitate safe parking in other cities such as Oakland, Oroville and San Jose. The logistics of a long-term solution to the RV and housing affordability crisis, however, have yet to be worked out.

But for now, the RV Safe Parking Program marks city progress toward fixing the crisis.

“I’m liking every bit of it,” said Randolph Parker, an RV resident in Palo Alto, in an interview with Palo Alto Online. “[It’s] like when you’re drowning and all of a sudden somebody grabs you.”

Contact Tejas Athni at tathni ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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