Alex Miggins is one of roughly 700 people living in RVs in Oakland. Soon they could get a chance to rent a space at a private property. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

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Alex Miggins sleeps in an RV by Mosswood Park because “it’s way, way better than being in a tent, and it’s cheaper than renting an apartment.”

But it’s not a stable way to live in Oakland. A warning note is taped to the door of her vehicle, from the time roughly a month ago that police came and told her to leave the area in three days. They haven’t come back yet to kick her out, but it feels like her days there are numbered. 

So Miggins was intrigued to hear about a proposal in Oakland to allow people like her to park on private property in the city. Under the policy, written by Mayor Libby Schaaf and City Councilmembers Dan Kalb and Sheng Thao, property owners could rent to tenants living in one or more RVs, or tiny houses on wheels, on their lot, depending on zoning rules. That’s currently illegal, because all residential dwellings must be built on a permanent foundation in Oakland.

Miggins said it would be worth it to pay rent if it meant having a secure place to park, and access to water and electricity. But she worried that landlords would change their mind and “kick people to the curb”—literally—or “jack up the rent” shortly after someone moved in.

That’s why the Oakland officials are proposing something unusual: including RVs under Oakland’s rent control and eviction protection policies. Those policies limit how much landlords can raise rents each year, and only allow evictions for certain reasons. 

If RVs are treated like housing units, “it makes sense to provide the same protections that exist for traditional forms of housing,” said Darin Ranelletti, the mayor’s policy director for housing security. 

But it would be a rare expansion of rent control in Oakland, after a 1995 state law strictly limited such policies. Oakland officials believe RVs are exempt from those rules.  

The rent-control proposal is part of a larger package of policies that would legalize more types of housing in Oakland, loosening rules around mobile, manufactured and modular homes, as well as RVs. The policies, all from Schaaf, Kalb, and Thao, will come before the Community and Economic Development Committee of the City Council on Tuesday. If the committee approves the legislation, it will head to the full council soon. 

Supporters of the policies say the housing crisis demands more flexibility in how cities define and permit housing. Traditional housing is expensive to both build and rent, so developers and residents alike have sought out creative and cheaper forms of housing in recent years, from factory-made apartment units to RVs.

“The current code doesn’t reflect how people are living today,” said Ranelletti. 

At last estimation, there were 700 people living in RVs in Oakland, and many report being regularly subjected to citations and harassment from the city and neighbors. 

They “deserve the dignity and comfort and security of a safe place to live,” said Ranelletti. Because RVs are cheaper than apartments, their occupants are typically lower-income, said Ranelletti, and thus “more at risk to fluctuations in the real estate market,” like rising rents. 

A state law limits rent control. Are RVs exceptions? 

Newer buildings—those built after 1983—are not covered by Oakland’s rent control rules. Credit: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

If the RV tenant-protection policy passes, it would be the first time in decades that hundreds of new units could be added to Oakland’s local rent control policy.

That’s because a 1995 state law, the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, limited the types of properties that cities could place under rent control. No buildings constructed after 1995, or after the year a local rent ordinance was passed—whichever came earlier—could be included in a city’s policy. Oakland’s rent control ordinance was created in 1983, so all residences built after that year are subject to market-rate rents. And the eviction protections in the city’s Just Cause Ordinance only apply to buildings constructed before 1995. 

The authors of the RV policy believe that vehicles are exempt from Costa-Hawkins, meaning an RV built after 1983 could still be covered by rent control. Their report to the City Council says the ban on rent-controlling new construction applies only to buildings with certificates of occupancy, unlike RVs. 

Los Angeles already includes mobile homes and RVs—if the RVs are located in a trailer park—in its rent control ordinance. 

“There is precedent,” Ranelletti said. 

But Oakland’s proposal would apply to RVs parked on other private lots too, in someone’s yard, for example. In many cases they could be considered “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, which are permitted on most lots in Oakland, including those zoned for single-family houses. The policy would not, however, apply to RVs parked on Oakland’s streets. 

Derek Barnes, CEO of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, a landlord advocacy organization, said he supports the push to embrace new types of housing, given that construction costs are so high, but is wary of the “restrictions” included in these policies.

“I’m excited on one hand—we’re thinking more broadly about what is a home and housing, and what we can do collectively to create more units,” Barnes said. “But sometimes what they don’t consider is the rising cost of owning and operating housing, which is beared by the owner.” Limiting rent increases limits property owners’ ability to perform upkeep, he said.

Renting to RV dwellers could come with new costs for landlords, such as providing utility connections, but could also eliminate other costs associated with running traditional housing, like property taxes and mortgage payments. Barnes said a “thorough analysis is warranted” to figure out the financial impact on owners. (The ordinance covers both RVs owned by the primary property owner and RVs owned by the tenant but parked on someone else’s land.)

Oakland already took a stab at legalizing some RV dwellings last year, with a pilot program allowing vehicles to park on undeveloped lots. A property owner could apply for an annual city permit to allow one RV to park on their lot, for free or for rent. The program was unsuccessful, with only three people applying to participate, according to the city. 

The authors of the new policies are proposing to wrap up the pilot program at the end of the year. Ranelletti said the new legislation incorporates lessons learned from the pilot program, which required property owners to apply and pay for re-authorization every year, and only permitted one RV per lot, likely not making the investment and liability worth it in many cases. 

The rent-control policy would also not be the first time rents were reeled in recently in California, despite Costa-Hawkins. A state law, the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, extended rent control to additional units, prohibiting annual rent increases above 5% plus inflation at any residential property. 

However, the increases permitted at units covered by Oakland’s local 1983 ordinance are much smaller. This year, the raises were capped at 1.9%.

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.