On a beautiful summer morning, I came down the driveway of my upscale apartment complex for the daily powerwalk in a good mood. That vanished when confronted by a livid fellow tenant pointing at an RV (recreational vehicle) and companion car packed with worldly goods and a rooftop cargo carrier. I’d passed it for almost three months. The young couple taking “vehicle residency” on our leafy avenue had just lined the curb with auto-repair supplies, a garbage bag, and empty water bottles.
“Look at that mess!!” She snapped. “There’s gotta be a way to get them out of here!!” Up came insinuations the RVs occupants were dumping toilet waste and trash on the street though none had ever been apparent. Elsewhere in this country these complaints are being voiced about monopolizing parking space, unsightliness, propane fires, dumping refuse in residents’ garbage cans, domestic violence, noise, break-ins to finance drug and alcohol habits, and today’s parking-lot plague of catalytic-converter thefts.
Few mention occupants dying from heatwaves, as happened to one Portland resident in a private RV park when July’s 116ºF temperature knocked out the air conditioner of his uninsulated motorhome. “This is like a tin can,” said his RV neighbor about no shade trees from direct sunrays and asphalt pavement helping to draw its heat. Another neighbor tin-foiled her windows and had to use two ACs.
Nor does local media cover resident rage and revenge against parked RVs and cars used by the houseless despite heavy focus on accidents and neighborhood crime. One Portland church with widespread volunteer public outreach—food, clothing, addiction help, etc.—knows it well. But such charity can’t be stretched to paying for towing vehicles regularly dumped on the side street outside the church office. One abandoned RV and three cars parked for weeks, When this good-neighborly church refused to lift a finger for a city pickup, it seemed obvious to me that a nearby resident(s), incensed and worried about declining property values, decided to force the issue. Not by rounding up other neighbors to call and visit City Hall. But by painting two-foot-high red graffiti on the vehicles with the assumption that surely the church would react (“Satan Is UR Pal,” ”Satan Is Best”) and Satanic symbols. One car took four direct shots to the back window, and side windows were smashed inward, lest broken glass puncture neighbors’ tires. But the church hung tough and eventually someone did call the city which tagged warnings and a few days later hauled them away.
Meantime, few miles away, five dusty RVs and companion vehicles, bikes and a motorcycle lined the service road across from a retirees’ high-rise apartment building. Free now of RV refuse, it was plain that vigorous and constant complaints from tenants had forced a deal between building management and the “vehicular squatters.”
Now, a 2017 zoning ordinance banned RVs on Portland’s residential streets, but enforcement seems to have lapsed this year either because the code has not been renewed, or a staff shortage and the growing volume of parked RVs probably makes enforcement impossible.
Nationally, similar scenes are becoming the increasing visible sign of America’s houselessness among lower and upper-middle classes.
For example, in Los Angeles county more than 10,000 by 2019 were living in vehicles—cars to RVs. Its city council reinstated an ordinance issuing $75 fines for overnight sleeping near parks and schools. It didn’t work because a year later the houseless count had grown to 66,436 . This year’s census was canceled because of COVID.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty says such ordinances are now the fastest-growing type of such restrictions in 72 percent of U.S. cities. Officials of LA’s Lancaster suburb were exposed last February for using LA sheriff personnel to banish the homeless to the Mojave Desert to survive on their own resources.
Nationally, the homeless and RV occupants now numbering more than 500,000, most flocking to seven states either because of their mild climates or supposedly plentiful shelters and services: California has drawn 151,278; New York, 92,091; Florida, 28,328; Texas, 25,848; Washington, 21,577; Massachusetts, 18,471; Oregon, 15,876.
I asked my furious fellow tenant where RV users were expected to move, given that Portland’s RV parks were reportedly full. “Anywhere but here!” she snarled, voicing America’s traditional cruel exclusionary attitudes starting in the 1600s between “first arrivals” and the huddled masses of indentureds, opportunists, and convicts who followed.
In the 1840-50 period, the divide was marked by pejoratives (“sodbusters” was the mildest) heaped on the Westward bound walking this 2,000-mile journey beside covered farm wagons. They faced snarling suggestions to keep moving from farmers and ranchers, themselves barely a year or two off the California and Oregon trails. Their paths, too, were marked by raw waste from oxen, mules, and families, as well as garbage and dead campfires, bones of the game that fed them and broken hearts over having to discard furnishings and precious possessions. Judging from the crude funeral markers along the way—some 30,000 died out of the 350,000 who set out on that trek—thousands were barred from using village cemeteries.
The same fears and social contempt was meted out in the 1930s to the 500,000 Dust Bowl victims headed for the West Coast in search of a future lost when violent winds blew theirs away. They came from the Midwest, Deep South, and Southwest (yet branded as “Okies”) driving farm trucks piled high, once again, with essential furnishings. Once considered upstanding citizens in their hometowns, they were regarded by fear-filled Californians and Northwesterners as bums and criminals, and faced billboards with threatening messages (“JOBLESS MEN, KEEP GOING. WE CAN’T TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN”).
Right now, this country is undergoing its third major national migration, largely triggered by the COVID pandemic’s adverse impact on industries and millions of small businesses. Corporate mergers and robotics have also contributed significantly to the nation’s unemployment crisis because of “streamlined” phase-outs. Thousands of “job-seeking nomads” will be increasing spectacularly after July 31 when the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) rent moratorium ended. The evicted will be joined by homeowners in the ongoing 223,671 foreclosure processes atop those of last year. The totals could mean 11.4 million renters and 6 million dispossessed homeowners trying to find sufficient income to cover affordable housing.
People like my neighbor, business leaders, and those of influence and wealth have collectively been pushed to demand federal/state/local governments “do something” about the ugly and unsanitary proliferation of tents, bedrolls, parked RVs and other vehicles—and the lie they house only non-taxpaying “trailer trash.” So officialdom has had to bestir itself to mull costs of constructing shelters and tiny-house communities, some of which now resemble farm-labor housing of the 1940-50s. Or buying and erecting prefabricated structures and continuing to subsidize rooms for the homeless in rundown motels and hotels.
Among other housing ideas floated, one website reported, were remodeling government-owned properties: vacant municipal airports, aging federal buildings, decommissioned aircraft carriers, and defunct military installations. After all, for centuries everywhere the fear and hatred of the homeless has always been to keep them “out-of-sight” embodied today in the “NIMBY” crowd (“Not in My Backyard”).
That means cities will consider buying toxic urban brownfields or using flood plains for RV parks and tented communities. Or using rural public lands such as the Japanese or POW (prisoner of war) internment camps. Pipelines for water and sewer systems, utility hookup lines and garbage dumps may still exist needing only basic upgrading. How they get back into town for government help or job interviews is something else again.
Even if accepted, the plans could take months or years to materialize.
In the meantime, the thousands refusing to wait have been turning to renting or buying new or used RVs for comfortable, safe—and basic and cramped living. In a climate of soaring mortgage and rent prices, an RV is a bargain. For instance, the average cost of new travel trailers start at $11,000 for a 21-footer with bare essentials ranging to a $428,063 40-foot motorhome for six. It comes with washer/dryer stack, three slide-outs—one for theater seating to a 55-inch TV atop a fireplace—a closet, a 91-gallon capacity toilet system, and a 40,000 BTU furnace.
Another option has been bank-repossessed RV auctions which save buyers at least 50 percent, but usually after three years involve major repairs and renovations. One 25-foot 2000 travel trailer for six was just advertised at $1,999, but listed as a “fixer-upper” (non-working furnace/AC, interior water damage, exterior “delamination”).
RV sales representative Ben Roessel says rentals are the major trend in the industry because most users lack credit. He acknowledged some buyers are speculators, buying new or used late-model units to flip them for resale or rentals when the desperate start surfing RV websites or showing up at sales lots. But long-term renters are unlikely to be charged the daily rates of, say, $75 to $335 for week-long vacations, according to rental dealer Stephen Aalberg.
Small wonder the industry sees wholesale shipments for 2021 reaching a historic 576,065 RVs. It attributes the 14 percent increase over 2020 to post-pandemic celebrating. And their media ads play to that, urging Americans to “get outdoors and experience the joy of an active outdoor lifestyle alongside friends and family.” An Ipsos poll predicted a year ago that 20 percent of its respondents were interested only in an RV’s recreational factor.
As for the remaining 80 percent anxious to buy or rent, it’s improbable RVs will be promoted as available, cheap “homesteads.” But at least they’re roomier than a tiny house or pop-up tent and have amenities such as AC, TV, microwaves, showers, toilets, and exterior slide-out dinettes and bedrooms. And they’re far safer from crime.
All this being said, it’s improbable that those who rent or buy an RV will ever want to park them on brownfields, flood plains, or far off public lands. It’s also doubtful that cities or counties these days have the tax revenues to invest in construction beyond one tiny-house village. Or lay in new sewer and water pipelines for hookups to the main systems, or set up new systems in remote areas. Utility companies may refuse adding lines unless a city or county pays for installation, usage, and maintenance.
Yet the one solution that would cost a fraction of taxpayer dollars, involve no construction, and earn significant revenues is right at hand: Converting an 18-hole public golf course with its usual and priceless 150 acres to a permanent RV park.
It’s a solution that municipal officers evidently tremble to even consider, so fearful are they of backlash from the powerful movers and shakers ruling every American community. This is big-time NIMBY. Yet golf, that expensive, elitist sport, has been on the decline for the last decade, especially during the pandemic. Some 800 courses have closed since 2009.
Every city has at least one public course that could be spared for an RV park, particularly major centers in those seven states now attracting the most traffic of evicted renters and foreclosed homeowners: Dallas/Fort Worth have 100 courses; Boston , 28; New York City , 9; Los Angeles , 8; Portland , 5; Seattle , 4; Miami , 3. Those 150 acres could house hundreds of RVs, depending on their size.
Of late, some homeless advocates and city/county officials have perceived those links as ideal site for low-cost public housing—shelters and tents to tiny houses. However, these would require heavy taxpayer expenditures for construction and even greater and perpetual costs: maintenance, pest control, insurance, and policing. Nearby residents probably would commit vandalism and acts of pure hatred on a par with what happened to that church.
But not so with a public RV park where occupants provide the housing and pay for almost everything else. Rents could either be comparable or slightly higher than private parks which currently charge from $500 to $1500 per month , depending on RV size and the region, and season. They would cover water, sewer, garbage bins and collections, taxes, and insurance.
Users also would pay for utilities, restaurant meals, and laundromat services at the clubhouse. Extra fees would be charged either for use of a toilet waste dumping station hooked to the course’s sewer system or regular RV stops by pumper tankers, something now being tried successfully in both Seattle and Portland. True, the course’s hilly spots would challenge an RV’s leveler, but pads are available at outfitter or RV stores.
Consider a conversion’s monumental savings in construction and outfitting. A golf course already has water, sewer, and utility lines, garbage service, outdoor restrooms and drinking fountains. Its clubhouse usually has a restaurant and furnishings, a fully equipped commercial kitchen, a large meeting room, card tables, and folding chairs.
The only startup expenditures would be hooking the dump station to the existing sewer line, buying laundromat units, a baseball backstop fence and bases. Second-hand pool tables and equipment, a movie projector and screen shouldn’t be difficult to find. Current staffers—kitchen to maintenance—could stay on in new operative positions, saving considerable expenses on recruitment and training.
Revenues for the municipality would exceed by far the former earnings of a golf course’s greens fees, rentals of clubs and carts, and concession profits.
Former golf courses would be far more attractive and spacious to RV users than most trailer parks. The grounds are scenic with abundant shade trees and picnic space on the greens for families, sand bunkers and wading ponds for the kids, baseball diamond in summer converted to skating rink in winter. Communal recreation like baseball, card games, jigsaw puzzles, and movies are inexpensive, simple, fairly quiet, and, wisely, would be limited to RV residents.
Too, most courses are near transit service so occupants could go downtown to meet most needs, groceries and entertainment to medical/dental appointments. Last, immediate eviction for breaking the park’s behavioral rules should ensure quiet after 10 p.m., clear air by smoking bans, trash-free premises, and repairs confined to weekends.
The chief initial obstacle to conversion, as previously noted, would be loud and vigorous complaints initially from city/county leaders and golfers, followed by howls from residents in the surrounding area. Golfers know they will be told other public links are available as are private clubs. And officials handling packed public town hall and/or city/county meetings about the conversion can meet objections by pointing out their parking complaints would be solved. That the park’s immediate evictions for rule violators will answer almost all other concerns. The clincher should be that if the issue winds up on the ballot, most voters probably would support conversion, especially its revenue earnings.
As to neighbors’ objections about having to encounter “trailer trash” in their daily runs or strolls past the RV park—or waiting for the bus—they need to be told that people who can afford to buy or rent RVs and then pay the park rent and all other expenses are residents remarkably just like them.