The city of Berkeley is moving ahead with a plan to grant three-month renewable permits to 25 RV dwellers so they can stay overnight at certain municipal parking lots once the pilot program is up and running.
The proposal, from council members Rashi Kesarwani, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Kate Harrison, was a response to the “high concentration of RVs located west of San Pablo Avenue, particularly in the commercial Gilman District and adjacent residential neighborhoods,” according to the item. As occupied RVs have proliferated in the city, officials have been struggling to find an appropriate way to regulate them while balancing the needs of both those who live in their vehicles and those who live or work nearby.
The Berkeley City Council voted 8-1 in favor of the proposal Tuesday night. West Berkeley Councilwoman Cheryl Davila voted against it because she said she didn’t think it was broad enough; she disagreed with the three-month limit on permits and took issue with other aspects of the program as well.
The city has been on the hunt since last year for a place in Berkeley where RVs could park full time. But there is simply no appropriate location for it, officials said Tuesday. For now, the city has identified six municipal parking lots where RVs could stay overnight. Officials said Tuesday that, once the program has launched, the city will only pursue enforcement against RVs parked in high-concentration areas, such as around Gilman Street. RVs that park elsewhere will not be targeted, they said, unless there are clear Health and Safety Code violations.
The city lots on the list of possible RV parking spots are located at the northeast corner of Harrison Street at the railroad tracks on Third Street; the West Berkeley Senior Center at 1900 Sixth St. (at Hearst Avenue); 2180 Milvia St. (at Allston Way); the Corporation Yard at 1326 Allston Way (near Acton Street); the South Berkeley Senior Center at 2939 Ellis St. (near Ashby Avenue); and the Berkeley Animal Shelter at 1 Bolivar Drive (near Addison Street).
The permits are set to have a three-month limit, but community members who get them will be able to ask to renew, officials said. They were in agreement Tuesday that the new program will be a “bandaid” rather than a solution, given the small size of the program and the fact that RV dwellers will have to move frequently should they want to take advantage of the permits.
“This continues to be a very sad and challenging issue for our city to address,” said Councilwoman Sophie Hahn. “I know that everybody here wishes we had the resources and the space to help everybody that needs help.”
Mayor Jesse Arreguín said that people who have no option but to stay in their vehicles are the “new norm” given the housing crisis in California.
“These are our friends and neighbors,” he said. “We cannot kick them out of the community.”
Arreguín said that, although Berkeley has no identified public land appropriate for full-time RV parking, there is a lot in Albany that’s owned by Caltrans where it could work. He said he’d like to see that area developed in partnership with neighboring cities and Alameda County.
In the past, RVs parked at the Berkeley Marina in relatively large numbers. But the city had them leave after learning this did not comply with allowable uses for the area that are outlined by the state.
Council members and community members alike expressed frustration Tuesday night about how the state has been slow to respond to inquiries from Berkeley about whether that position might be reconsidered, particularly in light of the housing crisis and a recent executive order from the governor about allowing encampments and other less traditional methods for shelter on public land.
As part of the new program, the city will look at how to provide portable toilets, handwashing stations and trash pickup to RV dwellers, as well as a pump-out station that could be accessible to them.
Councilman Rigel Robinson said Tuesday night that he was pleased to see the city change course from its 2019 “RV ban” policy, describing the new program as much more compassionate and more in line with Berkeley values.
But most of the community members who spoke during the council meeting said they didn’t see it that way at all. They said the three-month permit would be too short, and that it would be unreasonable and expensive to have to move their homes daily to comply with the new rules.
“This is just a very immoral approach, I think, to punish human beings that are already struggling, already living in survival mode,” a woman named Kata Ellsworth told officials.
Ellsworth, who is 49, said she is living on Second Street in her father’s camper, where he lived for about five years in Berkeley before recently getting a place. Kata’s father, Jody Ellsworth, told officials that he had graduated from UC Berkeley and now works for wheelchair repair program Easy Does It. He said he had loved his “tiny house” living until the city started to harass him.
“We live in this greed culture now. Prices are crazy,” he said. “I work here. I grew up here. But I’m being pushed out.”
Davila said the proposal simply wasn’t compassionate enough, and that too much market-rate housing in Berkeley has been making it hard for people to survive in the city.
“People are dying on the streets,” she said. “They chose to live in their cars because they don’t have another option.”
Harrison said the reason she supports the item is because it will limit enforcement only to particular areas.
“No one will be enforced against unless they’re in the areas of high concentration,” she said.
“And I invite people to come park on my block,” she added, which is in the 2000 block of Lincoln Street (at Shattuck Avenue). “I had a guy live on my block for 15 years in his van and he was the best neighbor I had.”