An estimated 700 people live in RVs in Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

In Oakland, a city where rents doubled over the last decade and thousands of people don’t have permanent homes, there are some 4,000 lots sitting vacant or undeveloped. The city began taxing the owners of those lots in 2020 to create a financial incentive to develop housing on them. Many still remain vacant, but a new pilot program allowing recreational vehicles to park at some of the sites aims to finally put them to practical use.

The Oakland City Council unanimously approved the RV pilot Tuesday evening. The program will allow vacant-property owners to host one RV on each undeveloped lot, if the owner of the vehicle pays the city $150 to apply for a year-long permit, and the property owner pays $500 to participate. The property owner also has to make sure the RV has access to water, a sewage system, electricity, and trash collection. They can decide whether to collect rent from an RV dweller or let them park for free.

City Council President Rebecca Kaplan, who wrote the policy, said the hundreds of RVs currently parked on the streets of Oakland often “end up creating a blight” because they don’t have access to sanitation and other services.

District 6 councilmember and legislation co-author Loren Taylor, who represents Eastmont-Seminary, called the initiative a “win-win-win.” Property owners can dodge the $6,000 vacancy tax, RV dwellers get a stable place to live, and the city can gather data from the three-year pilot.

An estimated 700 people, or 22% of Oakland’s unsheltered population, sleep in RVs, but it is currently illegal to live in an RV or trailer in most of the city. 

Over the past year, the city has opened three “safe parking” sites, two in East Oakland and one in West Oakland, for a select group of RV dwellers—often people recruited from a neighboring homeless encampment that the city later shuts down. Collectively, the sites accommodate about 100 RVs and have full-time staff and security measures, along with electricity and sanitation services. A plan for a fourth in West Oakland has hit some snags, but the city says it’s still in the works.

One man who lives in an RV near that forthcoming West Oakland site, on Wood Street, told The Oaklandside he hates living in a homeless encampment but still wouldn’t seek out a private property to park on through the new program. He’s skeptical that housed neighbors would embrace people like him and his wife, who has paranoid schizophrenia.

“It would depend on the location,” he said. “Residential people are going to start complaining.”

Until four years ago, the couple were property managers for their apartment building in Oakland, he said, but they got evicted because his wife would sometimes scream. A friend saw they were living in a tent and gifted them an RV, but rats have chewed through the wires and people have stolen the couple’s belongings. The man didn’t want to give his name because he said his son doesn’t know he’s homeless. 

Life in the encampment is a “culture shock” compared to the man’s idyllic childhood in Alameda and years spent in Japan, he said, but he’s more interested in moving to an RV park than a residential lot.

“You would be looked down upon in that kind of neighborhood,” he said. 

Two Oakland councilmembers said they themselves wouldn’t want many of the RVs in their districts, though they ultimately voted to support the pilot.

“East Oakland cannot be a dumping ground for all those RVs,” said District 7 Councilmember Larry Reid, who represents neighborhoods north of the San Leandro border.

Reid said that area has “carried the burden of housing the unsheltered” whether in the hotels used for coronavirus relief or in the existing RV parks. 

District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo, who represents Fruitvale, said Oakland has allowed homeless people to “park wherever they want to, throw their trash wherever they want to, throw their feces wherever they want to, shoot up wherever they want to.”

“I want to make sure this ordinance is one where the city clearly sets the rules and enforces the rules,” Gallo said. “I would like to share this up in the hills and North Oakland, so everyone has the experience.”

The handful of people who spoke during the public-comment portion of Tuesday’s City Council meeting criticized Gallo for using “dehumanizing language” to describe Oakland residents.

“The ‘blight’ is the lack of affordable housing,” said Zachary Murray. 

Taylor told his colleagues that the policy is designed to distribute RVs around the city. It applies to all undeveloped residential lots, not public land, so each neighborhood has sites that could be used. City staff will monitor compliance with the rules and can choose not to renew the annual permit if it’s not working out, Kaplan said. 

In 2018, a UC Berkeley public policy student mapped Oakland’s vacant parcels, for a report commissioned by District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney when the vacant property tax was being considered. That study discovered around 4,000 vacant lots—notably the same as the number of homeless people in Oakland—across the city. 

According to that study, the council district with the highest number of vacant lots is actually District 4 (Oakland hills), followed by District 3 (West Oakland and downtown) and District 1 (North Oakland). Through interviews with the owners of those lots, researchers found that most are left undeveloped either because they’re oddly shaped or not in a desirable location for housing, or because the owners don’t want to work with developers. 

The new pilot is most likely to benefit lot owners who are already—currently illegally—living in RVs on their vacant lots, said Kaplan’s chief of staff Kimberly Jones, or people who’ve recently been displaced from neighborhoods and still have connections there.

The city won’t do any matchmaking between RV and property owners, Jones told The Oaklandside. RV applicants must already have a property in mind and permission to park there.

Taylor and District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElheney said they personally know of constituents living in RVs on their own lots who could take advantage of the program, though it’s unclear how many people in Oakland fit that description.

“He has property inherited from family, but it’s not big enough to build on,” Taylor said of a man living in his district. “Now he won’t be charged and penalized just because he can’t build a home.” 

Kaplan said the city looked into allowing more than one RV per lot, but state law requires much more complex permitting for multiple vehicles.

City staff said that once the item passes its second reading, or final approval, at an upcoming meeting, they should be able to get the program going in a month or two. 

Correction: This article previously misstated that the RV owner will assume the full cost of participating in the pilot program. In fact, the property owner must pay for the $500 permit. After publication, City Council staff contacted The Oaklandside to correct information they previously gave us.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.