Opinion: Why legalizing RVs in Berkeley neighborhoods is a bad idea

Public land should not be transferred to private use. Berkeley should work at the state and regional level to find solutions for RV dwellers.

California is in the middle of a historic housing crisis. Berkeley is filled with compassionate, caring people who are upset at the misery this crisis is inflicting on many. However, the “solutions” that are being proposed by our mayor and some of the City Council with regard to the RVs populating our streets are not only bad but frightening.

On July 23, the council will vote on whether to start a permit program in Berkeley that will allow RV dwellers to apply for either two-week permits to legally reside on the streets in front of residences and businesses, or a three-month (renewable to six months or indefinite) permit to reside on as yet unidentified pieces of city or state property, possibly our once beautiful Marina. The council will also discuss places RVs could locate on city-owned land.

Here are five reasons why these are both bad ideas and terribly unfair.

1. PUBLIC LAND SHOULD NOT BE TRANSFERRED TO PRIVATE USE Both Berkeley’s streets and our Marina are public lands meant to be used and enjoyed by everyone. When I was growing up in Berkeley, my grandfather used to take me fishing on the pier. Now the pier, along with many other public amenities are gone due to neglect, lack of funding, and our City Council’s priorities.

The Berkeley Marina could be the crown jewel of Berkeley. When my children were young, I took them to adventure playground and the annual kite festival. We took advantage of low-cost programs run by Cal so they could learn water sports. But for many years I’ve completely avoided the waterfront due to trash, encampments, and crime. It is a tragedy that this beautiful piece of land is no longer appealing and available for all Berkeley residents.

The Marina is already reeling from neglect and financial mismanagement and allowing RVs to become a long-term presence will only accelerate the decline. Waterfront Commissioner Paul Kamen argued in Berkeleyside that adding a second hotel is the answer to these problems. It is difficult to imagine this being an attractive business venture alongside a poorly improvised RV encampment. In fact, the management of the Doubletree already told the City Council about the unhappy guests and lost revenue arising from nearby RVs. What hotel operator would choose a location with such challenges?

2. NOISE AND DISRUPTION I have lived on my current street in Berkeley for 11 years. During this period, there have been a few times when RVs have chosen to park in front of my home or across the street. My bedroom faces the street. Having people living on the street in front of my home has not been a happy situation. I could hear the inhabitants coming and going from their vehicle at all hours of the night, which interrupted my sleep. Further, I wasn’t always sure exactly what was going on inside those RVs, given the hours the inhabitants kept and the noises that came from them. I never felt safe during the weeks those vehicles were parked near my home, within a few yards of my bedroom.

The city has regulations about setbacks and measurable noise levels designed to address these issues for fixed residences. There is no plan for the scenario where the offending party is on wheels.

3. TRASH Unlike a house or apartment, RVs do not have regularly scheduled trash pickups by the city. Therefore, they must look for places to get rid of their trash. Unfortunately, this sometimes ends up being the street around their vehicle. While RVs are by no means the only cause of the current sorry state of Berkeley’s streets, they are a significant contributor. If these vehicles are able to get permits to live on your street, they will bring their trash with them. Even if RV occupants are tidy, they still need trash pickup. Parked in front of your home, the trash bins on your property that you pay for will be the obvious option, leaving you with no place to deposit your trash bags.

4. LACK OF SANITATION & PUMPING FACILITIES and INCREASED FIRE RISK RV park dwellers pay for sanitary pump-out equipment and services. So do the people living on boats in the Berkeley Marina. Where does human waste go when RVs are parked on city streets or lots with no facilities? Often, it is dumped into storm drains and goes into the bay. This is why there is such a thing as RV parks. To properly live in a “Recreational Vehicle,” one must have electrical hookups and sewage pump-out facilities. Neither of these is available on city streets, which are meant to be for public parking, not rented for private use such as living in an RV.

Poorly maintained RV’s are also a fire risk as bad wiring or the use of open flame (combined with flammable trash) creates ideal conditions for starting fires. We also do not know, nor is there a plan to require, if RVs are all carrying the safety equipment required by state law, which includes fire extinguishers. At the recent RV fire in West Berkeley, none of the RV owners present produced a fire extinguisher to combat the blaze. As we know, the last thing we need is additional fire risks.

5. SAFETY Unfortunately a lot of crime in Berkeley is committed by those who are un-housed (see the stats) thereby increasing the chances that our safety will be compromised if RV dwellers live in our neighborhoods. This does not mean that all RV dwellers are criminals, which of course they are not, but rather an acknowledgment that parole violations, unregistered sex offenders, and outstanding warrants are frequent causes for arresting un-housed individuals.

The proposed ordinance does not include a plan to run background checks before issuing the 2-week or 3-month permits nor is there a plan to ensure that RVs remain in the area to which they were assigned. Residents will not know which RVs are permitted and which are not, nor will they know when permits expire.  According to one Council member, the entire program will be “complaint-driven.” Therefore, it will be incumbent upon residents to call for enforcement thus increasing the workload of a police department already under enormous strain.

RV parks have never been situated in dense urban locations but, instead, are in areas with cheap, plentiful land. Berkeley is a small city with very little underutilized space and is already one of the most densely populated cities in the United States and getting denser as new, high-rise housing is built.  For comparison, Berkeley (11,322) has 54% more residents per square mile than Oakland (7,372).

So what is the “solution?”  This is a state and regional challenge, and one that Berkeley should not attempt to “lead” with its limited land and resources, demonstrably short-sighted plans, and reactive approach.

The housing crisis that California is now experiencing took decades to create and will take many years to fully address. In the meantime, depriving the citizens of Berkeley, including renters, seniors, parents, children, homeowners, and business owners of the use of their streets, Marina, sidewalks, and parks is not the answer. Instead, we should be working with the state and regional players to find solutions, while enforcing our laws and making Berkeley available and appealing to all residents.

April Gilbert is a negotiations trainer, coach and certified mediator who resides in District 8.