Opinion: Thoughts on living in an RV in Berkeley

A year ago, the author had a job that paid six figures and was living in a nice house. He lost his job, broke up with his partner, and found himself without a home. Living in an RV has helped him get back on his feet.

Just over a year ago, I was living in a nice house with my partner of eight years and working a comfortable six-figure tech job. Life changed when the startup I was working for ran out of money, and I got laid off. Two weeks later my partner dumped me, forcing me and my dog Bandit to move out. I found an affordable room through Craigslist, sharing an apartment with three other people. Things were going great for about a week, until the landlord showed up and told us that the master tenant, whom I had just paid a rather large security deposit to, hadn’t paid him any rent for the last six months and we were being evicted. Turns out the master tenant was stealing our rent money to fuel his meth addiction.

Later that night, after confronting the master tenant about the eviction, he turned violent. I rushed to rent a U-Haul, packed as quickly as I could, and got the hell out of there. I was now jobless, homeless, and running out of money. I continued to look for housing, which is already scarce, and almost impossible to secure without a job. I bounced between Airbnbs, friends’ couches, and when things started to get dire, a campsite at Lake Chabot.

This is the cycle of homelessness that traps many of us. It was hard for me to get a job with most of my energy focused on where I was going to sleep that night, and hard for me to find housing without a job.

To keep myself afloat, I used the last of my savings to buy an RV, a 1992 Ford Silver Eagle. If you’ve never been inside an RV before, you’d be surprised how comfortable it is. I have a sink with running water, a stove with an oven, a fridge, a shower with hot water, and a toilet that flushes. It’s not much different from one of those tiny studio apartments in Manhattan, and has provided me with the stability to land another job, which is going well.

My neighbors, who I met when I stared parking at the Berkeley Marina last summer, are some of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet. They’re Cal students, retail workers, non-profit employees, and delivery drivers, all driven out of traditional housing by skyrocketing rents. We’ve formed a loving, supportive community, sharing meals and helping each other navigate this precarious situation none of us ever thought we’d be in.

If the RV ban passes, I’ll be fine. After a brief period with my bank account dangerously close to zero, I’m building up my savings with my new job so I can afford the deposit on an apartment, and this chapter in my life will soon be over.

My neighbors won’t be fine.

Most of them haven’t had the upper-middle-class upbringing and engineering degree that has become a prerequisite for affording Berkeley rents. They’ll be forced to scramble to find a new place to park. If their RVs get towed in the process, they’ll likely find themselves joining the growing tent cities under freeway overpasses.

To be completely honest, a year ago I would have supported the RV ban. Living in a comfortable house with a stable job, it was hard to feel anything but annoyed at unsightly RVs parked in front of coffee shops and breweries, inhabited by scary, unknown people who my imagination made out to be needle drug users and car window smashers. Needless to say, my perspective’s changed.

Living in an RV has given me the stability and safety I’ve needed to get through an incredibly difficult period in my life, and come out the other side no worse for the wear. While I’ve occupied a parking space never intended to be lived on, it’s enabled me to support myself well enough that I’ve never needed to draw on social services, very costly to the city, like shelters and health clinics.

I’ll share an excerpt from a letter from Councilmembers Cheryl Davila, Kate Harrison and Rigel Robinson directed to Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani, Ben Bartlett, Sophie Hahn, Susan Wengraf, and Lori Droste:

“Vehicle dwellers reflect the same diversity of our housed community and deserve to be treated with equal care and respect. Vehicle dwellers pay taxes in Berkeley, visit our restaurants, theatres, businesses and contribute to our economy.”

Many people have asked me what my position on the RV ban is, and what I think should be done to mitigate the growing housing crisis in the Bay Area. I don’t have a good answer, because nobody does. Streets lined with RVs and freeway underpasses filled with tents are clearly not a long-term solution, and neither is forcibly removing or banning these populations. At its core, this is a story about population migration to an area experiencing rapid economic growth, with the creation of new jobs vastly outpacing the construction of new housing for the workers. We’ve seen this same story play out over the decades; the Irish and Italian immigration wave a century ago, the Dust Bowl in the 30s, and the current wave of immigration from Central America.

What’s clear is that attempts to control the movement of populations through legislation have been met with limited success, and often-disastrous consequences. We all need to work together as a community, as a city, and as a region to manage the growing pains we’re feeling. This is the difficult, but necessary reality of living in a city.

Paul Kastner is an engineer who has worked in software development and automated manufacturing for the past decade.