Hundreds of people live in RVs in Oakland, illegally. A new proposal could let them rent space from private property owners. Photo: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

The number of people living in RVs and trailers in Oakland has exploded in recent years, as more residents find themselves unable to afford an apartment in the city but desperate to avoid sleeping on the streets.

But there are few places where RV occupants can legally or safely park their homes in Oakland. They’re often the subject of complaints from housed neighbors and can be fined by city code inspectors.

Now, three city officials are proposing a slew of changes to the city’s housing codes that would permit people to live in RVs parked on private property, and ease rules around mobile, manufactured, and modular homes. With traditional construction costs climbing, proponents say the proposal authorizes alternative types of dwellings that are quicker and cheaper to build, and more accessible to people in need of housing.

“We are seeing innovation both in the way that houses get built and also in the way people are choosing to live,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf at a virtual press conference Tuesday. “Our old codes and zoning laws are no longer serving our need to accelerate housing production and to lower its cost.”

The proposed ordinance, introduced by Schaaf and City Council members Dan Kalb and Sheng Thao, will come before the Planning Commission for the first time on Tuesday. Eventually it would require a vote of approval from the City Council to go into effect.

Currently all private residential buildings are required to be built on a permanent foundation, making it illegal for an RV-dweller to live in most places in Oakland, except in rare cases like some empty lots where there isn’t an existing house or other structure. 

Under the new ordinance, one or more RVs or tiny houses could be stationed temporarily or permanently on a private lot. Each RV would count as a housing unit in the city’s zoning code, and in many cases they would qualify as “ADUs,” or accessory dwelling units, which are permitted across the city. 

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf speaks at a press conference on housing construction June 1, 2021.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf is working with two City Council members, Dan Kalb and Sheng Thao, to expand the types of housing construction allowed throughout the city. Credit: Zoom

In a video assembled by the city, Adam Garrett-Clark, who created and lives in a cooperatively-run tiny-house village in West Oakland called Neighborship, said the proposed changes could legalize his community’s living situation.

Tiny houses and RVs offer a “practical way to keep a roof over your head, be insulated from the environment, and have a steady eight hours of sleep,” he said. “The only issue is these laws that prevent it.”

Garrett-Clark’s mother, Sauda Garrett, moved to Neighborship after returning to Oakland after years away and encountering exorbitant housing prices.

“A law allowing us to remain here…it would give me a sense of security,” she said in the video. “Because without this, I don’t know where I would end up.”

Separate from the ordinance heading to the Planning Commission, the City Council on Tuesday will consider a proposal to give $350,000 to Garrett-Clark’s organization, Tiny Logic, to run a new city-sanctioned homeless camp at an undetermined location. The council will also vote on pursuing other emergency housing programs, including modular shelters at an E. 12th Street site and a new RV “safe parking” lot in West Oakland.

Unpermitted RVs and communities like Neighborship often draw complaints from nearby residents who raise concerns about sewage issues at sites that either lack bathrooms or rely on portable toilets. Another common concern is that cooking and heating appliances could start a fire. There are hundreds of encampment fires each year in Oakland, including many connected to RVs.

City officials said Tuesday that the vehicle homes would be subject to fire-safety rules, blight and trash-collection laws, and inspections. Under the proposal, one RV would be allowed to access utilities like water and power from another building at the site, but if there were multiple RVs, they’d need to be connected to the city’s water and sewage systems, a pricey proposition. 

“Fire safety is paramount,” said Kalb, who represents North Oakland, including the fire-prone hills. 

The ordinance would also permit manufactured homes—which are cheaper to build than traditional housing—across the city, treating them like regular single-family houses in the city’s zoning code. “Efficiency units,” smaller studio apartments or SRO-style rooms without kitchens, would also be permitted more widely. 

Lastly, the proposal increases height limits for modular housing complexes. Modular units, built in a factory, can be stacked on top of each other to create apartment buildings. Because the ceiling of one unit is stacked against the floor of another, creating thick chunks of building material between each unit, fewer stories can fit within the city’s traditional height standards. The result is fewer units. 

At Tuesday’s press conference, Schaaf spoke highly of Factory_OS, a Vallejo modular construction company that purports to build housing 40-50% more quickly than traditional housing, and at 60-80% of the cost. The idea, proponents of the new ordinance say, is that housing that’s built cheaply can be rented for less, since developers and landlords won’t have as large of a cost to recoup.

But Schaaf emphasized that the new rules would apply only to private, unsubsidized housing. A homeowner could still charge whatever she wanted in rent to a tenant living in a tiny house on her property, and so could the owner of a modular housing complex. The new ordinance does not inherently create affordable housing, which Oakland has struggled to build. While the city has blown past local and regional targets for market-rate housing construction in recent years, it is deeply trailing behind the goals and requirements for affordable-housing construction

But city officials and staff who support the ordinance say they expect the expanded housing options and reduced construction costs to lead to lower rents. 

The new vehicle housing, like RVs, would also be eligible for state affordability incentives, noted Darin Ranelletti, the mayor’s housing policy advisor. If property owners allow RVs to park at their property and restrict rents to low-income levels, they may be allowed to host more RVs than the city’s zoning code permits, Ranelletti explained in an email to The Oaklandside.

“It is time that we bring more efficiency and flexibility to housing construction so we can address the Bay Area’s housing affordability crisis,” said Schaaf at the press conference, adding that she hopes other cities in the region adopt similar changes. 

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.