Harry Epstein, 72, sits on the steps of his RV parked in Mountain View on Aug. 17, 2022. He has lived on these streets for the past 15 years and has come to call them home, like many other RV residents in the city. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
he city of Mountain View and the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley have reached a tentative settlement in a lawsuit over parking laws for RVs and oversized vehicles. Starting on October 1, hundreds of RV residents will have to move their vehicles, or risk being ticketed and towed.
The settlement was part of a lawsuit filed in response to Measure C, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2020. Dubbed the Narrow Streets Ordinance, it gave the city the green light to tow vehicles perpetually parked on narrow streets (40 feet wide or less), with advocates of the measure arguing the vehicles posed a safety hazard, blocked bike lanes and kept traffic from flowing smoothly.
But enforcement has been on hold since then, after the law foundation and other advocacy groups sued the city. The lawsuit claimed the ordinance was inhumane and unconstitutional and would disproportionately affect already marginalized groups, including disabled people, non-native English speakers and people of color.
“They effectively banned RVs from the majority of the city, so we saw it as a way of criminalizing homelessness as opposed to addressing the housing crisis,” said Erin Neff, a staff attorney with the law foundation. “The settlement is reflective of a more collaborative approach to helping unhoused people that prevents displacement and doesn't merely punish people for being unhoused.”
According to the settlement, the city must provide at least three miles of street segments where people can park their vehicle. If a person is parked on a "narrow" street, police will ticket them, provide them with a map of where they can park and give them 72 hours to move their vehicle before towing it.
As the Bay Area has gotten more expensive, and housing hasn’t kept up with demand, people have looked to RVs as their plan B — affordable housing that allows them to stay in the Bay Area, close to schools, jobs and even lifesaving medical care.
While the lawsuit dragged on, these Mountain View RV residents created their own communities. Children ride their bikes down the streets and play in nearby parks, while parents talk to each other outside. Many of the residents are elderly, and rely on each other for companionship and support.
Now as enforcement nears, RV residents are grappling with where they will live next and what that means for the networks they have built.
Francisca Ramirez Vasquez lives in an RV parked on Crisanto Avenue, along with about 30 others. It sits alongside Mountain View’s Caltrain station, and as the train loudly whooshes past, she sweeps the area next to her vehicle.
“We try to make sure we have our yard clean. We sweep and collect our garbage so we don’t look bad,” she said in Spanish.
Ramirez Vasquez, who declined to share her age, used to live in an apartment with her husband in Mountain View, close to Shoreline Park. But in 2019, the rent got too expensive and they couldn’t find housing anywhere else, so they used their savings to buy their RV.
For a while, her granddaughter lived with them, and went to the school nearby, but she moved away with her mother, and now it’s just Ramirez Vasquez and her husband. She enjoys looking after other children who live next door while their parents are at work. It’s just one of the things that she and her neighbors do to help each other out. When a new RV moves onto their block, they all work together to make space and welcome them.
“The mere truth is that I’ve never lived like this, but I’m not ashamed of it,” she said. “I will hold my head high because we are not stealing, we are living in a decent place. We are also worthy of this place.”
On her walks through Rengstorff Park, located next to Crisanto Avenue, she has heard people say mean things about people living in RVs. A few months ago, she overheard some outreach workers talking to an unhoused woman staying in the park.
“They said, ‘Why don’t you live in the RVs?’ and she replied, ‘Never. I’m not crazy. They don’t shower.’ I wanted to go off on her, but I decided to stay quiet. But it does make you angry to hear that,” she said.
The city has been encouraging people living in the RVs to pursue other housing programs, like shelters and safe parking sites, city-sanctioned parking lots that also offer services. Ramirez Vasquez has looked into some of them but found they don’t work for her and her husband.
There are some shelters, but she heard they have curfews. Her husband works the late shift at a McDonald's nearby and doesn’t come home until 11 p.m. or midnight. She has also tried to apply for apartments, but many require a credit check and other paperwork. “If you don’t have that, they won’t accept your application, will they?” she asked.
According to the city's Narrow Streets Ordinance map, Crisanto Avenue is considered a "narrow" street, so Ramirez Vasquez will have to move. But this street has become her home, her neighborhood. It’s difficult for her to leave it behind.
Hector “Max” Hernandez, 70, worked as a chef at a fancy Italian restaurant in Palo Alto for 18 years. Before the pandemic started, he was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Mountain View, but his landlord slowly raised his rent from $1,500 to $2,000 per month. Eventually, his landlord asked for $2,500. His restaurant shut down in the pandemic and he lost his job. He was forced to move out and buy an RV, which he now parks close to Ramirez Vasquez on Crisanto Avenue.
“It’s not a palace, but it’s a place that I call my home,” he said in Spanish. “There’s a saying in Italian, that when life gives you lemons, make limoncello. I’m not homeless. I have a place to sleep.”
Hernandez is originally from the seaside town of Mazatlán, Mexico, and owns a three-bedroom house there, but moved to the United States to serve as a Marine and earn enough money to support his family. Today, he is divorced and has family all over the country; his daughter is all grown up and has a job in Japan. He had planned to work for a few more years while the lawsuit played out, but has become tired of the uncertainty around whether he’ll be able to stay on Crisanto Avenue.
“I keep thinking, well, Max, you have a choice,” he said. “Either you can keep doing this or go back [to Mexico] and live happily ever after, I hope.”
He plans to move back to Mexico in December and finally retire. “I’m going to eat big prawns and seafood and fish and drink Pacifico beer,” he said. “That’s my plan.”
Continental Circle, a 15-minute drive from Crisanto Avenue, is also densely packed with more than 30 RVs and is now officially considered a "narrow street". On one side there are apartment buildings, and on the other is the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF), which houses doctors’ offices. That’s what has kept Harry Epstein, 72, parked here for the past 15 years.
Epstein started getting chronically sick in his 30s and was unable to keep a consistent job. He has a number of health issues, but his chronic fatigue affects him the most.
“I kept getting jobs and losing them,” he said. “I’d have an apartment and then I’d lose the job and I’d be out on the streets, I’d have nothing. That’s when I started thinking about something like a motor home or living in a car.”
He is one of many who live here, because it’s all they can afford close to medical care.
“It's been very good for me to be close to PAMF, you know, because I have to go over there for a lot of things, you know. That's been very, very helpful to be this close,” Epstein said.
But living here hasn’t been easy.
For the past two years, as more and more Bay Area residents have gotten pushed to the streets, Epstein had to deal with some unfriendly RV dwellers who parked next to him. They left trash and started dumpster fires.
“There were all sorts of characters coming over there, and it just got to be too evil of a place for me to be hanging around,” he said.
He eventually moved to another street nearby, lined with multimillion-dollar homes. A few months ago, he found a hate letter taped to his window.
“It’s intimidating because you don’t know what’s going on here,” he said.
Esptein has tried to call the police a few times, when he was worried about his safety, but doesn’t feel protected. During a KQED interview, a police officer visited Epstein to check in on him. When KQED showed the officer the hate note that had been taped to Epstein’s windshield, the officer said her main goal was to provide RV residents with services.
She didn’t offer any solutions to his problem. Epstein believes this is because he doesn’t live in a traditional home.
“They don’t do anything that they would normally do if I were a regular resident calling to complain,” he said.
Police officers and other city officials have come by and encouraged him to find housing at a shelter or apply for a parking spot with their Safe Parking Program. But he has been resistant, because he has the impression that he’d have to eventually give up his RV.
“I never want to get rid of this [RV] because whatever happens in life — you don’t have a home, you don’t have a job — well, I do have a home, so I never want to get rid of this,” he said.
Epstein doesn’t have a backup plan and no intention of applying for the city’s alternative housing programs. His street, Dale Avenue, is one of the few streets included in the three miles of permitted parking for RV residents. He won't have to move his RV, but his neighbors on Continental Circle, many of whom have disabilities and medical issues, will have to park somewhere else or leave Mountain View entirely.
Stay in touch. Sign up for our daily newsletter.