First they came for the homeless . . .

No matter what metrics you examine, the national housing crisis gets only more dire with each passing month–yet the prevailing social response has been to make it ever harder for people to find a place they can call home. The predictable result: more people living on the streets, more rattletrap RVs heading for public lands and growing tension between those who own a home (or can afford rent) and those who don’t.

On the supply side, the latest news is that the average home price in the U.S. popped above $375,000 in March, a 15% increase over the past 12 months. This development came against a backdrop of mortgage rates nearly doubling in the same period, prompting headline writers to coo that an overwrought real estate market might finally be poised to cool down, as if that’s somehow meaningful. But unless they’re predicting an actual real estate downturn (they’re not), what the headline writers are saying is that housing prices will remain lodged at levels far higher than most working people can afford.

On the demand side, there simply isn’t enough affordable housing to go around, and the consequences are truly inhumane. Thomas Fuller, writing last week for the New York Times out of its San Francisco bureau, reported that Los Angeles last year averaged five homeless deaths a day, including 287 who “took their last breath on the sidewalk.” Overall, he added, “the epidemic of deaths on the streets of American cities has accelerated, as the homeless population has aged and the cumulative toll of living and sleeping outdoors has shortened lives.”

Austin, Denver, Indianapolis, Nashville and Salt Lake City are among the cities Fuller cited where officials and homeless advocates have been alarmed by the rising number of deaths–yet the public response to homelessness in these and other cities has been increasingly punitive. The Los Angeles City Council, for example, recently decided that starting May 15 it will again enforce parking restrictions for “vehicle dwellings,” which essentially means that derelict RVs will get towed away. There undoubtedly are numerous legitimate reasons for doing this–not least among them a marked upswing in RVs going up in flames on city streets–but without an offsetting effort to provide low-cost housing, this simply means the city will be pushing homeless people back onto the sidewalk.

Sidewalk living, however, is increasingly criminalized. Austin, once an affordable city, has become the national leader in rising housing costs, with rents soaring 40% over the twelve months through February. Its residents nonetheless voted last year to reinstate criminal penalties against public camping, and the Texas legislature piled on a few weeks later by banning homeless encampments statewide and fining offenders $500. That’s called “squeezing blood from a stone,” but other states–including Florida and New Hampshire–have followed suit with similarly draconian bans.

Remarkably enough, some few landowners have tried to do what their public representatives apparently can’t, opening their private property to homeless campers. Unremarkably, mostly what they get is community pushback and official slap-downs. When one such private project, Camp Haven Sanctuary, became home to 19 otherwise homeless people outside Austin, local neighbors blasted the effort in online posts that were so vitriolic they had to be taken down. A similar encampment on private land in Akron, Ohio, was shut down by city officials who said it violated zoning restrictions–as were encampments in Salt Lake City, Morganton, WV, and elsewhere.

The housing squeeze is getting worse in other ways as well. Mobile home parks, frequently cited as America’s cheapest non-subsidized housing, increasingly are being sold either to developers who want the land for other uses, or to speculators intent on raising the rents. On those rare occasions when state legislators try to enact some kind of relief–as is happening currently in Colorado, where a House bill would cap annual rent increases–the real estate industry responds with cries about “rent control” and accusations of government overreach. Those may or may not be valid points, but they’re never followed by alternative approaches for dealing with a growing human tragedy.

Elsewhere, Tennessee earlier this month enacted a law straight out of a Dickens novel, requiring renters who want to appeal an eviction to first produce a year’s worth of rent. To break that down: if you’re a renter in Tennessee and can’t afford a rent hike, your landlord can evict you–and you’ll need to show a judge $15,000 or so before you can even file an appeal. Since for many people that’s even less likely than homeless people having $500 to pay a fine in Texas, the inevitable result will be even more people on the street.

Tennessee, to be sure, may be on the kook fringe. This is the state, after all, that made national headlines this past week when it also hopped onto the criminalization bandwagon, passing legislation that makes it a felony to camp or sleep in parks or other public property. Sen. Frank Niceley (see? another Dickensian touch, if rather sardonically so) backed the bill by telling his colleagues that in 1910 Adolf Hitler “decided” to be homeless. “So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and his body language and how to connect with the masses and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books,” Niceley recounted.

“So a lot of these people, it’s not a dead-end,” Niceley concluded, in the ultimate perversion of a let’s-make-lemonade-out-of-lemons sermon. “They can come out of this, these homeless camps and have a productive life — or in Hitler’s case a very unproductive life.”

Hard to know just what Niceley intended with that unfortunate digression, but one reasonable interpretation is that our treatment of the homeless is breeding thousands of potential Adolf Hitlers. Maybe that suggests we should get serious about finding alternative responses. Until that happens, however, we can expect more homeless people occupying state and federal land, and more of a jaundiced attitude toward RVers and campers in general.

RVs as homes of last resort

I was a reporter in Phoenix, several decades ago (!), when I first heard the term “SRO” while interviewing an anthropologist-turned-housing-advocate about the city’s sharply increasing homeless population. The growing number of people living on the streets, she said, was a direct result of the demise of Single Room Occupancy facilities–sometimes boarding houses, but more often aging hotels that had been converted into bare-bones living quarters at affordable rents. Now, she said, those faded properties were being bulldozed out of existence in response to the city’s exploding real estate market. Those who ended up being evicted? Collateral damage.

Phoenix was hardly unique. The U.S. once had enough SROs to house millions, but by the mid-twentieth century these cheap living quarters had become increasingly targeted by developers, by more stringent fire and building codes and by the moral rectitude of those living in more comfortable circumstances. Between 1955 and 2013, nearly one million SROs in the country were done in by regulation, demolition or conversion to condos. In Chicago, 81% of all SROs disappeared between 1960 and 1980. San Francisco, which today has one of the most expensive real estate markets in the U.S. coupled with one of its highest homeless populations, lost approximately 15,000 SROs between 1970 and 2000.

As SROs declined, however, an alternative form of cheap housing was on the rise, as mobile home parks swiftly became home to millions of mostly lower-income people. Tucked out of sight in the countryside or within industrial areas, such “parks” had the advantage of keeping the underclass out of the urban centers that had been home to SRO occupants. By 2001, more than 7 million mobile homes dotted the American countryside, with more than a third of them concentrated in mobile home parks–until the same forces that whittled away the SROs started working on them, as well. Earlier this month, Forbes magazine commented on how the number of mobile home parks has been “drastically reduced” each passing year, albeit without providing any hard numbers.

Rising real estate values are partly behind that reduction: many trailer parks that once were on the margins of metropolitan areas have become engulfed by urban sprawl, making the land more valuable for other uses. But there’s also the “loss-leader” problem for municipalities, as mobile home parks typically pay much less in local taxes than they soak up in public resources, particularly for local schools. And underlying all the financial dynamics is the whole class issue: with SROs, it was their depiction as “welfare hotels”–even though residents were predominantly unsubsidized. With mobile home parks, it’s the “trailer trash” perception. There is, unfortunately, little tolerance in a society that measures value in dollars for those who don’t have many.

The bad news today, as we head into a year in which remaining pandemic-driven moratoria on evictions are about to expire, is that the number of housing refugees–the people once most likely to need SROs or trailer parks–is about to soar. Meanwhile, low-rent housing–defined as $800 a month or less–declined by 4 million units between 2011 and 2017 and is in chronic short-supply. More than 20 million renters are paying more than 30% of their income for housing, and half of those are paying more than half–a level housing experts call “severely burdened.” Many of those people will soon find themselves on the streets.

What’s all that have to do with RVing and the splendid pursuit of camping in the great outdoors? Nothing, unless one realizes that “camping” isn’t only recreational–that it also defines one extreme of a housing continuum that stretches from gated communities at one end to improvised tents on the sidewalk on the other. And with SROs and mobile home parks increasingly squeezed at the bottom end of the spectrum, the dwindling number of cheap alternatives is making RVs look ever more attractive–for all their shortcomings as long-term housing–to people without other options.

What will be the social consequences? I’ll predict more friction within the RVing community itself, as those who spend big bucks for big fancy rigs used primarily for vacationing start bitching about the low-lifes in the battered travel trailer or class C next door. Look for more and more RV encampments to spring up next to tenting communities on city streets, parks and abandoned strip malls. And expect rising tensions between those who already own homes and those who want to build or expand existing campgrounds that will bring in more of the new transient class, regardless of how much money some of them might have.

History repeats

Public perception is a fickle thing, buffeted by changing circumstances and shallow emotions, and the RVing world is not exempt from its vagaries.

Back in the 1920s, for example, the growing affordability of automobiles resulted–among other things–in an explosion of car camping among the middle class. Unfortunately, the democratization of a previously elite pastime grated on the more affluent, who did their best to tamp down this encroachment on their turf. As quoted by Terence Young in his book Heading Out, from a widely circulated camping publication of the time, efforts to exclude “obnoxious” campers included instituting campground fees, “not because the camp managers need to raise any more money, but to keep out the ‘cheap camper,’ called by the Forest Service men a ‘white gypsy.'”

A decade later, car-camping as the epitome of camping convenience was surpassed by the size and amenities of camping trailers, which did away with the nuisance of having to set up a tent. But those same features also opened up the possibility of other uses, and as camping trailers became more affordable (as had automobiles before them), the Great Depression recast them as housing alternatives for those with no other options. With public perception of trailers shifting from cushy camping to inexpensive housing, officials overseeing the still fledgling supply of public campgrounds became increasingly alarmed. Camping trailers were “a highly objectionable and dangerous feature” in campgrounds, warned Emilio P. Meinecke, perhaps the nation’s preeminent architect of campground design. If not regulated closely, he warned, the trailers would create “a new type of city slum or suburban village with a floating population.”

Fast-forward nearly eighty years, and Meinecke’s fears–at that time on behalf of national forests and parks–are now applicable to the cities and suburbs themselves. Not just cars, vans and travel trailers, but tents and motor coaches have all become fixtures on streets throughout the United States, and especially in the warmer parts of the country. What just a few years ago was a “stealth” mode of creating shelter has become increasingly overt, culminating last month in the owner of a Class C parked on a Seattle street building a wooden second floor on top of his motorhome. (City authorities eventually made him remove the superstructure.)

City officials everywhere are struggling to cope with these incursions, which over the past 18 months have grown more pervasive due to the impact of Covid-19 on homeless shelters. Their efforts range from adopting draconian restrictions on who can park what kind of vehicle where and for how long, which doesn’t address root causes, to creating designated parking lots for RVs, which when underfunded and under-serviced simply concentrate the problem–again, without addressing root causes.

The general public, meanwhile, may end up viewing RVs with the same skepticism it had in the run-up to World War II. And that, in turn, may tarnish RVs as déclassé affectations, bastard children that are neither home nor vehicle, more public blight than private luxury.

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