Anti-homeless parking ban in Berkeley sparks outrage
An RV in Berkeley with a bumper sticker that reads “home is where you park it.”
An RV in Berkeley with a bumper sticker that reads “home is where you park it.” (Alastair Boone)

“I live in an RV because a tent is not secure in any way. It’s not warm enough and it’s not safe enough,” said Amber Whitson. “You only have a thin nylon wall between you and the street.”

Whitson has been living in vehicles for five years, since she was evicted from a large homeless encampment at the Albany Bulb in 2014. Now, she and 200-some other RV dwellers in Berkeley may be displaced, after the Berkeley City Council passed an RV- parking ban on Tuesday, March 26. The ban prohibits RVs and campers from parking anywhere in the City
of Berkeley from 2:00 a.m.-5:00 a.m., effectively outlawing overnight parking in any capacity. It will impact almost nobody except for the city’s homeless community.

The ban will not be enforced right away, except for in situations that pose health and safety violations. The council voted to hold off on enforcement until they create an RV permit system, which will allow certain vehicle dwellers to park in designated areas for three months, with the possibility of an extension. The permit will prioritize certain “priority populations,” which include people who are employed in Berkeley, students who attend Berkeley schools, families with young children, and people who have a prior address in Berkeley in the last 10 years. These groups will be considered first when applying for permits.

Once the ban is enforced, violators without a permit could be issued $60 tickets for parking overnight anywhere in the city.

Council members Kate Harrison, Cheryl Davila and Rigel Robinson voted against the ban, while the other six members of the City Council voted in favor. The decision came just before midnight, after over three hours of dramatic public comment. Most of the speakers were RV dwellers and their supporters, who oppose the ban. Many of them reiterated that RV dwellers are victims of the Bay Area’s suffocating housing market, who have found a creative solution to house themselves affordably.

“We have taken it upon ourselves to find a solution that works for us.
I am a good neighbor, I keep my RV and the land around it clean,” one speaker said. “If you want to penalize me for mess, do that. But don’t penalize me just for existing.”

On March 21, protestors gather outside Berkeley’s Civic Center to oppose the city’s new overnight RV parking ban. (Alastair Boone)

Matthew Cox told the council that he was once housed in Vallejo, but decided to move his family into an RV and relocate to Berkeley so that he could enroll his kids in Berkeley schools. His seven-year-old daughter, Chanelle, addressed the council. “Hi my name is Chanelle and I live in an RV and I live in Berkeley. I would like to stay there,” she said as her father held her up to the microphone.

Cox, who is a Berkeley native, implored the council not to vote him and his family out of their home. “You cannot take me and my family away from these RVs in Berkeley. I will literally die before you do so,” he said.

District 2 resident Laura Diven took to the podium to advocate for her neighbors who live in RVs, though she does not live in a vehicle herself. “We live with our RV neighbors as thick as thieves. My son has friends who live in RVs…I never fear for [his] safety,” she said. “A lot of talk about safety and dirtiness, and a lot of these fears that just are not real.”

A small handful of business and property owners spoke out in favor of the ban. They complained about crime, as well as finding hypodermic needles and human waste in the neighborhoods where they live and work.

“I am a middle-aged, white, working class property owner. This
is a serious problem, and we need a solution,” said a speaker from District 2. “But the solution is not allowing people to park wherever they want, whenever they want. The solution is taxes from people like me. We work for a living too, and we pay taxes.”

A Fourth Street business owner named Patty Woody echoed his concerns. “We have a bad problem of crime on Fourth Street,” she said. “We have a tremendous homeless encampment under the freeway and in tents. They come into our shops.”

Photo of Kimberly with her RV.

Kimberley Majit 54, has lived in an RV since the eve of her 50th birthday. She is a Bay Area native—born in Mountain View, she has lived all over the bay. Before she and her husband moved into an RV, they weren’t homeless. After losing their home in San Francisco, they moved to the East Bay and started renting a small house in San Pablo. At the time, she was still working. She worked for the construction company for ten years, but soon after moving to San Pablo was fired for vague reasons. After she was fired, her landlord raised her rent, which Kimberley and her husband could not afford. It was then that
they decided to move into an RV. Kimberley says she isn’t cut out
for RV living. “That first night, I was terrified. I’m still terrified,” she said. Being homeless has caused her tremendous stress. Her blood pressure is dangerously high, and soon after moving into the RV, she suffered a heart attack. “I haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in four years,” she said.
While Kimberley would like to retire, her goal for now is to build out her skillset so she can re-enter the workforce, and move back into a house. “Some people, they would live in an RV forever. And that’s great for them. But I don’t want to live here forever. I just want what I used to have.” ▪

Several council members agreed that the tension surrounding RVs parking on the streets could be diffused by encouraging their inhabitants to disperse throughout the city, so that there is not such a high density of vehicle dwellers in certain areas, such as West Berkeley.

But there is a reason why so many RVs are currently parked in West Berkeley. About a year ago, the city evicted a number of RV dwellers who had been parking along Marina Boulevard for months. After receiving complaints about the group, they kicked the vehicles out and built parking spaces for smaller cars. The RV inhabitants temporarily relocated to the former Hs Lordships parking lot, which is also in the marina, but were soon evicted from there as well. Berkeleyside reports that at least two dozen of those RVs ended up around Eighth and Harrison streets in West Berkeley, where they remain today.

“The problem is not going to go away,” a UC Berkeley student named Angus who lives in his bus said at the meeting on March 26. “You really can’t get rid of us.”

Despite what may become of the parking permit, many Berkeley residents are concerned about the impact the looming ban has already had on RV dwellers.

An RV with photos and protest signs pasted to the side, outside the protest at Berkeley’s Civic Center on March 21.
An RV with photos and protest signs pasted to the side, outside the protest at Berkeley’s Civic Center on March 21. (Alastair Boone)

“People have already left West Berkeley, after the first vote,” said Melissa Cheatwood, who has lived in Berkeley for ten years. “They were intimidated. They weren’t even aware there was more to the process.”

Tuesday’s vote marked the second reading of the RV ordinance. It is required that all city ordinances must have two readings before they go into effect, but most second reading votes are uneventful and take place without further public comment. However, the ban proved so controversial in the weeks between the two readings that the council put the item on the action calendar on March 26, opening it back up to public comment and discussion amongst the council.

The differences between the proposal that was read at the first meeting and the one that was read at the second are minimal. At the first meeting, the council suggested a permitting system that would grant 14 day permits. The second reading extended the amount of time the permits will cover to three months, with the possibility of an extension. The council also added the amendment that specified the “priority populations” that will be considered first for permits. Both readings established that RVs and campers will not be allowed to park anywhere in Berkeley between the hours of 2:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m.

Moving forward, Mayor Arreguín said the city would work to identify places for “safe haven parking,.” Furthermore, the council is scheduled to discuss the creation of a “vehicle dweller program” on April 2, an agenda item written by councilmembers Harrison and Davila.

Despite the city’s gestures at compassion, many fear what the ban will mean for the future of RV dwellers in the city—many of whom are long-time residents.

“When does one become a Berkeley resident?” Berkeley resident Barbara Brust asked the council, “once they start renting an apartment, or after they’ve been here for years?

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.