Category Archives: Vehicular living

The middle class rediscovers life beyond the picket fence

It’s not out of the blue, this belated discovery by the SF Chronicle that rational people sometimes live in vehicles.

Yesterday I had some bitter fun here at the expense of the paper’s startling news feature, “These Young SF Professionals Choose To Live in RVs“. As I wrote yesterday, the article is a symptom of the exceptionalist free pass that San Francisco lately accords young “entrepreneurs” when it comes to breaking inconvenient laws.

But there’s a deeper trend going on too. When a newspaper derives as much income as the Chronicle does from real estate and high-society advertising, and yet it finds the RV housing option to be no longer beneath its notice, it follows that something new is up with American housing patterns.

What’s up is, urban reflux has brought back respectability to old-fashioned housing compromises. Post-industrial cities, with San Francisco in the lead, are replacing their factory and shipping employment centers with clean-aired, socially insulated tech campuses. The types and class characteristics of the work are new but the housing demands created by high-density urban workplaces are familiar. They’re leading young working people, newly separated from more rural (or suburban) families and too busy for elaborate housekeeping, to look for economical, compact homes and cheap, quick meals near their workplaces. Naturally, also, to seek out community and amusement as well as places to live, eat and work.

So, OK, the notion of long-term living in vehicles may be a little bit new for non-itinerant, middle-class people. But RV living, as it exists now, is part of a whole intermediate category of semi-communal, semi-permanent housing, also including residential hotel living, that has been there all along but is only now resurfacing in middle-class awareness.

As political scientist Leonard Feldman has argued, these ways of living were denigrated in the 20th century under a politically inflected ideology of real estate that set up the suburban single-family home as ideal symbol of complete respectable adult citizenship.

Now the home mortgage crash has dented the ideology of the stand-alone house as sign of competent middle-class adulthood. Bunkhouse arrangements are becoming mentionable again, as in this feature on San Francisco’s Noisebridge (h/t to Ben Brumfield) or last year’s New York Times report on “hacker hostels”. Middle-class professionals, in moving back downtown, are returning to downtown ways of life that their great-grandparents would have found familiar.

By this point anyone who knows Paul Groth’s work on residential hotels will have seen his imprint in what I’m writing here. After dipping into his stuff in the past, I’ve gotten around to reading the whole of his 1994 book, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. (Wonderfully, the whole thing is available as a free PDF download from the University of California Press.) Groth demonstrates that hotel living had — and has — and will have again — as many social strata as life in houses. He walks right down the scale from “palace hotel” suites at the likes of the Waldorf-Astoria, through many levels of middle- and working-class respectability, down to shelter-standard flophouses for laborers and ex-laborers who, he notes, have been falsely labeled as “homeless” for a century. Along the way he notes many layers of living standards that would have been middle-class choices at the turn of the last century.

As Groth explains, there’s nothing new about residential hotel living, nor roommate arrangements for both economy and companionship, nor compact housekeeping setups in alcoves behind office or storefront spaces, nor the kinds of hotplate/washbasin makeshifts that become necessary in RVs. It’s just that, for the post-WWII middle class, these choices became temporarily unthinkable. Now they’re rethinkable.

Unfortunately, the poor people who occupied hotels and RVs in San Francisco for so many years are now being turfed out to go and live in the emptying inner suburbs, bereft of the high budgets for maintenance, transportation and policing that make suburban living tolerable. Now that inner cities are the rage, crud-suburban life is the new chronically-ignored hardship story. The transportation problems there, especially, are going to be hell in the next few decades.

But one cheer, I suppose, for the renewed realization that you don’t have to maintain an isolated nuclear family establishment in a high-maintenance stand-alone house to be a full-sized adult member of society.

And another cheer, I suppose, for the Chronicle, for being on it.


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?