If San Francisco RVers Learn To Code will they be safe from arrest?

This morning’s San Francisco Chronicle has discovered vehicular residency as a cute alternative to conventional housing in San Francisco. That is, our paper of record has discovered that some tech entrepreneurs live in RVs. So, although this mode of housing remains formally as illicit as ever, suddenly it must be OK.

The story was trending on Hacker News today as though it were a brand-new stroke of brilliance. One fanboy gushed, “That’s what I like about the mind of an entrepreneur- the ability & desire to innovate.”

Time was, we could count on the law in its majestic equality to forbid the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges — whether under blankets, under cardboard and pallets, in tents, or in RVs.

Now it seems that if you Learn To Code and live in an RV, you can have a free pass from absurd laws. In fact, you’ll get cred points for your creative cheekiness — as though nobody had thought of cutting the same corners before you did.

It’s the power of tech “disruption” impunity. If “entrepreneurs” break a law, then it’s all right, and furthermore the idea to do it is theirs and theirs alone and theirs to copyright and license back to the rest of us. It feels like the bit where your boss slaps down your idea when it’s yours, then takes credit for it in his own voice.

This sudden warm acceptance is an ironic shock to anyone who remembers how RV dwellers were hounded out of Dogpatch and other waterfront neighborhoods to tone up those neighborhoods for condominium development.

We had one sign of this sea-change in attitude previously: a widely shared Streetsblog report last May about an AirBnB listing for “housing” in a parked van. I explained in a Storify here why the listing was impractical and, as described, probably against the law.

Otherwise, until now, the common and de facto ordinary practice of living in RVs has been policed by the city and reported on in the Chronicle as though it were a criminal menace. Until now, people living in RVs have been defined as “homeless” — as Others without full adult status or rights, excluded from mentions of conventionally housed people as “residents”. Now that “entrepreneurs” do it, suddenly the paper can editorially see that a person’s housing status is not a ground for exclusion from civic membership.

Last fall, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a fierce new set of partial bans on street parking of inhabited vehicles. I wrote a little here about the details. Old friend Kathleen Gray, speaking from personal experience, wrote a powerful essay about why the ban was both ironic and wrong. As she explained, the areas where the Supes planned to ban RV parking are the same areas where, for many years, city police ghettoized vehicle campers by “encouraging” and sometimes flat-out telling them to park if they wanted to be less harassed.

This past June 4, the SF Municipal Transportation Authority took a further vote approving an expanded version of the selective RV parking ban that far exceeded even what the Supervisors had envisioned. (See Item 11 here for the final version.) Most SFMTA board members seemed unmoved by sometimes terribly emotional testimony from people who were simply asking to be let alone to live their lives in a time-honored but traditionally unconventional form of de facto housing.

Just a month ago, the Chronicle‘s primary anti-homeless columnist, C.W. Nevius, was cheering the RV parking bans as a means of “clearing” streets around Ocean Beach.

Supervisor Malia Cohen has repeatedly been quoted, including in the recent Nevius column, as saying that the presence of RVs on Bayview waterfront streets was a sign that the rest of the city regarded her District 10 as a “dumping ground.” Last September she said on the same subject, “I’m tired of my neighborhood being the dump.” I can remember a similar view being attributed years ago to Cohen’s District 10 predecessor, Sophie Maxwell, in response to people at the Coalition on Homelessness who inquired about inviting her to think of RV dwellers as constituents.

The dominant public and political view thus far has been that RV residents aren’t community members or constituents — instead, that they’re outlawed hazards to “real” community members and constituents.

In this followup discussion to the June 4 hearing, and this late-June 2013 Twitter discussion thread, it felt like success merely to be getting some admissions from the city — including homelessness honcho Bevan Dufty — that many vehicular residents were not dysfunctional or disruptive or chronically needy. That many were not in need of “stabilization”, detox, or other medicalized loco parentis. Instead, that they were simply people with jobs or other incomes, no more dysfunctional than the average fallible human, distinguished merely by lacking legal status for their homes.

So this actual positive depiction of vehicular residents is something of a shock.

So, here’s my next question: if people who already live in RVs now “learn to code”, will that be OK? Or in this Mahagonny of a city of ours, what new sumptuary distinction will the city find to ensure that, as usual, only the rich and the cute get to “disrupt” conventional expectations?


4 thoughts on “If San Francisco RVers Learn To Code will they be safe from arrest?

  1. Pingback: Ocean Beach news roundup September 1 | The Ocean Beach Bulletin

  2. Pingback: The middle class rediscovers life beyond the picket fence | Roofs, Walls and Fences

  3. BVB

    B.S. trying-to-be-hip derivative that Tynan guy is, but at least he’s paying rent. NONE of those people living along the Great Hwy and on either side of Golden Gate Park are paying for any sort of services, in fact, they expect services to be provided to them gratis. All the while just parking for days, being an eyesore to neighbors, hanging out with their dogs of their leashes, doors wide open, doing whatever is they do all day… And at the end of it, when they finally have to move after a week long hide-n-seek game, there’s a pile of trash, stench of days old urine in the gutter, and probably some #2 in the bushes over there.

    1. marthabridegam Post author

      It looked to me like Tynan Smith, the RV resident most prominently featured in the Chronicle story, was the only interviewee who said he was paying rent for a space on private property. Since an authorized rental space creates a refuge from some forms of police harassment, that may be why he’s the one who felt secure enough to tell a reporter where he was camping and to give the reporter a tour of his home.

      As for everyone else, it’s not purely a matter of people “refusing” to pay for a space on private property, it’s at least partly a matter of private spaces being difficult to find. I’d guess that many if not most RV residents would be glad to pay an affordable rent or exchange some chores for an authorized parking space with access to water, sanitation, and other utilities. Unfortunately, such arrangements are scarce.

      Have you discussed your complaints with your RV-resident neighbors? I don’t live at Ocean Beach but it sounds to me like you are overdue for a negotiation among RV-resident neighbors, conventionally housed neighbors, property owners, and the city about how to meet everyone’s needs. Especially about how to share the cost and hassle of meeting RV residents’ sanitation needs. The conversation needs to include RV residents. They’re people, not skunks.


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