Growing identity crisis for RV parks

Despite the entrance sign at right, the R.V. Park of San Rafael is home to an eclectic mix of travel trailers, mobile homes and a park model, all visible from the entrance.

RVtravel has an interesting story today, by Randall Brink, which misses the forest for the trees but which nonetheless sounds yet another warning about a dystopian outlook for RV full-timers.

The piece, headlined “RV park tenants evicted after court ruling,” relates how residents of the R.V. Park of San Rafael, California, will lose their homes after the park’s owners ran afoul of the city’s rent stabilization ordinance—an ordinance expressly designed for mobilehome parks. In a nutshell, the property owner’s management firm, Harmony Communities, tried to raise rents by more than the ordinance permits, and on being sued by the city, argued that an RV park should not be subject to a mobilehome ordinance. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, pointing out that the ordinance has been on the books since 1991—15 years prior to the current owner buying the property—and that the matter had already been adjudicated in state court.

Harmony’s response? Issue eviction notices earlier this month to 40 of the RV park’s 45 residents, giving them until Oct. 31 to vacate the premises, presumably to prepare the land for sale. “The city wants a private property owner to singlehandedly subsidize affordable housing in San Rafael but the park has no cash and is losing money every month,” Harmony explained in a press release. “Since the city has refused to honor its own ordinance, the only choice is to shut down the park. We anticipate all residents moving out by October and look forward to redeveloping the property towards a higher and better use.”

Note that even after losing its court case, Harmony is still insisting that the city’s ordinance should not be applicable to an RV park—but is that an accurate description of the R.V. Park of San Rafael? As the photo above illustrates, the one shared aspect of the various dwellings on this property is that they all have wheels. Calling this conglomeration an RV park is no more accurate than calling it a mobile home park or trailer court—indeed, it could as easily, and accurately, be called the Mobilehome Park of San Rafael. Moreover, that blurring of distinctions is not helped in the least by California’s statutes, which define a mobilehome park as a property “that has at least two mobilehomes, manufactured homes, recreational vehicles, and/or lots that are held out for rent or lease.” [Emphasis added.]

Why does it matter? For one thing, such state laws and court rulings continue to mock efforts by the RV industry to draw a bright line between its products, which it contends are not intended for full-time residency, and actual dwellings that must be built to national housing standards. Successfully making that distinction helps the industry avoid such pesky regulations as requiring their electricians to be licensed, to cite a particularly egregious example, and it enables enormous cost-savings on construction materials and quality. If national standards for manufactured housing—the more contemporary label for mobile homes—were applied uniformly to mobilehome parks, RVs would never be admitted.

But that’s the forest that gets obscured by individual trees like the R.V. Park of San Rafael, where press coverage tends to focus on the need for affordable housing and not so much on what standards that housing should meet. What’s obscured is that RVs, park models, tiny homes and house trailers increasingly have become an undifferentiated mass of last-resort shelter, jostling each other for a place to chock their wheels in a mad campground game of musical sites—single-wides moving into RV parks, travel trailers finding room in trailer courts, park models and tiny homes springing into any chinks that can be found.

All these disparate forms of housing are not created equal, so why do we pretend that they are—except, of course, when it suits an outfit like Harmony Communities (really? Harmony?) to draw a belated, self-serving distinction? Are standards for manufactured homes too stringent, and therefore should be relaxed, if only to make house trailers more affordable? Or are those standards the bare minimum for ensuring safe and durable shelter for people with wheeled homes, even if those homes are called park models, fifth-wheels or travel trailers—in which case, what will it take to extend those standards?

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Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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