A new survey done by volunteers in the community found more than 200 inhabited RVs parked along public roadways in Mountain View, despite extensive efforts in recent years to curtail the number of vehicles being used as homes.
The count, done by volunteers independently of the city last month, is the first glimpse at how many vehicle dwellers remain in Mountain View following a ban on RV parking along most city streets. The city did its own survey in August but thus far has declined to make the results public.
The most recent survey shows a total of 206 recreational vehicles apparently being used as homes, higher than the city's last count of 191 in July 2020. The bulk of the vehicles are clustered along the few remaining streets that are exempt from the city's parking ban, which prohibits oversized vehicles from parking on roads that are 40 feet wide or narrower. Busy streets include Terra Bella Avenue, Continental Circle, Pioneer Way and Gemini Avenue.
Dozens of RVs remain on Crisanto Avenue, a road where oversized vehicles are technically banned but enforcement has been delayed.
"We believe the increase is primarily the result of the economic hardship experienced by many in our community, exacerbated by the pandemic, despite the record-breaking profits of local tech corporations and high salaries of many professional employees," according to a joint letter by the Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable Planning and the Mountain View Housing Justice Coalition.
Across northern Santa Clara County, an estimated 25% of homeless residents are relying on cars and RVs for shelter, a growing trend that has caused friction in Mountain View. Many of the vehicles are flouting the city's 72-hour parking limits, have nowhere to dump waste, and have frustrated nearby residents unhappy with the city's lax approach.
Though the numbers fluctuate, the tally of inhabited RVs has bounced between 158 and 207 between 2017 and 2020, according to surveys conducted by the city. At its peak in February 2020, the city counted a total of 299 vehicles being used for shelter.
Since then, the city has taken significant and expensive efforts to bring that number down. Mountain View has since become one of the Bay Area's largest providers of safe parking, providing roughly 100 spaces -- 68 of which are available for oversized vehicles -- across three sites. Vehicle residents are encouraged to relocate their RVs off of city streets and into the program, where they receive case management services and a roadway towards permanent housing.
On the enforcement side, the city adopted a pair of ordinances that prohibit oversized vehicles on narrow roads and streets with bike lanes, the former going into effect starting in August this year. Opponents of the controversial rules say the parking restrictions are an attempt to oust the homeless who are struggling to survive in a high-cost area.
Despite the safe parking program and the parking prohibitions, the latest survey suggests that the number of inhabited RVs parked on city streets hasn't budged, raising questions about how effective these tools are at solving the problem. Though successful, the safe parking program has been packed to the brim with oversized vehicles and has a waiting list to get in, limiting its ability to directly remove RVs from city streets.
In the joint letter, advocates encouraged the Mountain View City Council to expand the safe parking program and add more spaces, particularly in the expansive "Lot B" outside Shoreline Amphitheatre. The letter also asks that the city consider more permanent solutions, including the creation of an RV park that could charge rent on a sliding scale and provide utility hookups. The RV park would be distinct from safe parking in that it would function as a rental property rather than a homeless services program.
"Housing will remain unaffordable for a large number of Mountain View's workers, seniors, people with disabilities, and other residents for the foreseeable future," according to the letter. "We are faced with the reality that vehicle dwelling has become an essential alternative for meeting the immediate housing needs of some low-income individuals and families."
IdaRose Sylvester, also writing on behalf of the Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable planning, made a pitch for significantly expanding the safe parking program, noting that the homeless have been well-served by the support services. She said vehicle residents have shared stories about the dangers of living on the street, and how safe parking lots create a sense of community that help people cope with health issues, unemployment and loss of housing.
"A stable community is highly valuable in helping people through housing transitions," Sylvester said. "Safe parking lots work, and we hope to see the program expanded, and in some locations, made permanent."
The city's own count of inhabited vehicles in August has not been released, pending a "finalized" report. City spokeswoman Lenka Wright clarified that the results will not be made public until after it has conducted an additional, updated count in early 2022.
Mountain View's parking restrictions on oversized vehicles are being challenged in court over whether they violate the state and federal constitutional rights of vehicle dwellers. Last month, a federal court judge allowed the case to move forward, ruling that multiple allegations have enough merit to come before a jury.
While the case is ongoing, advocates are asking the city to take a balanced approach to vehicle dwellers by helping them find a legal place to reside. The joint letter asks the city to publish a map showing where oversized vehicles are still permitted to park -- which is now limited to just 11% of the city's streets -- rather than just maps where "no parking" signs are being installed. The letter also requests that the city consider dropping parking prohibitions between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. on wide roads where RVs are still permitted.