The cost of housing is so outrageous in California that stories that might once have seemed preposterous now seem completely unsurprising. Case in point: In a scene straight out of a dystopian movie about a ravaged future Earth, homeless people set up an encampment at a toxic Superfund industrial site in Oxnard, saying they had nowhere else to go.
Media coverage of the extreme cost of housing in the Golden State has focused on how it has increased homelessness and poverty, led more people to move to cheaper states and made it difficult for school districts, governments and private employers in the costliest areas to find workers. But there has been little focus on what our future ultimately will look like. This mess isn’t going to be solved by building “affordable housing” — at least as long as it’s of the expensive sort traditionally seen in California. Nor is it going to be solved by offering slight regulatory relief such as the state Legislature recently enacted to encourage housing construction.
Here’s my confident prediction about how this problem will be dealt with by a growing number of Californians — not the destitute homeless, but single people with both low-paying and middle-income jobs. They’re going to decide to live in their cars, trucks, vans, campers and recreational vehicles — and once this demand is clear, automakers will start building more vehicles designed to be lived in, entrepreneurs will sell kits to convert existing vehicles into more comfortable homes and businesses will emerge that cater to vehicle dwellers’ needs.
In an era in which the cost of shelter consumes at least half the income of millions of California households, it’s going to dawn on a lot of people that instead of finding perfect roommates and living paycheck to paycheck, it will be easier just to get a roomy sports-utility vehicle from GMC (dubbed “Grand Man Caves” by the Complex website), add a drop-down TV screen and a small satellite dish and think of that $700 monthly vehicle loan payment as the equivalent of rent — with the bonus that after a few years, you’ll no longer have to pay rent. You’ll own your vehicle-home. Yeah, you’ll also have to pay $79.99 a month to use the showers at 24 Hour Fitness, but that beats $1,500 or so a month for your share of the rent — without counting the cost of utilities.
When iPhones came out a decade ago and supercharged the smartphone era, it didn’t take long for companies to figure out there were billions to be made off iPhone accessories. When conventional politics completely fails to address a giant problem, an unconventional response is certainly possible. And when a group that’s disproportionately hurt by California’s housing crisis — millennials — already have a reputation for being less materialistic and less conformist, why wouldn’t they look for alternative housing?
Jessica Bruder, author of a new book called “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” says employed people living in their vehicles have become more prevalent in the U.S. since the Great Recession. This is from a book excerpt in The Guardian, a London newspaper:
During three years of research for my book … I spent time with hundreds of people who had arrived at the same answer. They gave up traditional housing and moved into “wheel estate”: RVs, travel trailers, vans, pickup campers, even a salvaged Prius and other sedans. For many, sacrificing some material comforts had allowed them to survive, while reclaiming a small measure of freedom and autonomy.
This is increasingly common in expensive parts of California, as the San Jose Mercury News reported earlier this month:
From Oakland to San Jose, officials are struggling to cope with a growing influx of RV dwellers seeking a safe, permanent place for the only homes they can afford. …
RV communities have popped up everywhere … from abandoned department store parking lots in Oakland to the streets around high-tech campuses in Silicon Valley.
Most RV residents work, including some with high-paying tech jobs who have chosen to downsize … . Others are working poor, priced out of Bay Area apartments.
This week, the London Daily Mail made the same point:
The rising cost of rent and housing in California is forcing residents into alternative accommodation with middle-class workers taking up residence in their cars and RVs by the side of the road to make ends meet.
Hundreds of people, including nurses and chefs, are sleeping in parking lots in affluent areas like Santa Barbara as they make the most of the only homes they can afford.
What’s striking in California is that many communities already accept people living in vehicles, despite there often being rules or laws against it. This fall, the city of San Diego expanded its Safe Parking Program, which designates lots that can be used by those living out of their cars, and many other cities have similar programs. Under a law passed last year, Los Angeles also allows overnight parking in some commercial districts. In Mountain View, the mayor brags about the services his city provides to those living in more than 330 cars, trucks and RVs.
So long as vehicle dwellers aren’t in residential areas, the NIMBY attitudes that have helped spur California’s housing shortage seem to be relatively in check. And given the many huge parking lots that are empty overnight, capacity is not going to be a problem if living in vehicles becomes a California phenomenon — at least if owners of those lots have a compassionate streak or can monetize this use of their property.
Given the centrality of Golden State’s car culture to its image and history — reflected in movies like “American Graffiti” and in the once-huge popularity of drive-in restaurants and movie theaters — a redefinition of the car in California as not being about independence and adventurousness but about shelter would be a twist that not many state residents would have seen coming 25 years ago.
But then not many state residents could have conceived of such an epic failing on housing by California’s political class — one that the media also largely missed until 2012. That’s when the Census Bureau began issuing a report that measured poverty including cost of living, and found that California — not West Virginia or Mississippi — had the highest percentage of impoverished residents. The latest report, issued in September, showed California remains the poverty capital of America, with more than one in five residents struggling to pay their bills.