You might be wondering, what is all this fuss about Tiny Home’s still not being legal?
Why are Tiny Home Communities getting shut down in Oakland?
I thought the city has all these tiny house villages? What about the shelter crisis, the eviction moratorium and the Pandemic, this can’t be right.
All of those things are true and yet we are still at a place where people on private property are faced with escalating fines, property liens and eventually warrants if they do not comply with demands to end their affordable housing. This is happening across the city, materially affecting lives during layered crisis and all for an irrational world view that people that don't earn high amounts of money are Blight.
Our community of 6 years that has a valid lease (pays property taxes) holds insurance, adheres to all safety and sanitation codes, has trash service, internet service, water, and support of neighbors is threatened with shut down due to blight codes. The Blight codes make the presence of RV’s or trailers on private land a violation, it includes a limit of 72 hours that someone can sleep in an RV on private land.
For years, we assumed this silly ordinance would go the way of anti-sodomy laws, marijuana or the Anti-miscegenation laws that said that my parents couldn't marry when they met in the 60’s because they are of different racial categories; just another silly law based on silly world views that have no basis on the realities of real people and would never actually be enforced. But we kept a low profile all the same.
For years, we watched a group of squatters next door to us have active neighbor calls against them because of trash fires and shooting BB guns out into the street but the residents were never pushed out. We felt safe. Apparently Code Enforcement just never got around to it.
But it seems the extra free time of the pandemic has gotten to these Oakland Code Enforcers and they are making up for lost time, issuing harassment violation notices across the city kicking people while they’re down. In our case, this legal fiction and its robotic army is actively trying to Evict five Oakland residents from their long time home.
There are many ways to solve this silliness, Let’s explore some of the options and their potential.
Inspector could drop it:
Most Code Violation Notices include a line that says something like “ you will need to comply or work it out with your code inspector.” I’ve heard from a former Code enforcer in another State that “work it out” can often mean a bribe. Or in our case, we hoped for a discussion and to show effort to comply as best as possible.
We know this Inspector could drop it. In 2016 after a generator fire next door that burned down the neighboring house. A code enforcer discovered our lot. I got the message from our landlord, the same day we all got the bad news that Donald Trump won the election. Double whammy.
I gave the inspector a call and tried to both not concede that anyone lived at the site but that it would be a shame to kick out the people next door who depend on the site for housing in the middle of a housing crisis. I was trying to indicate to him that we were also in that situation without saying it directly. He seemed to get what I was saying and admitted that there were no neighbor complaints against us. He said the trailers were against the blight code but that it was true there was no legal path to get permission for them.
He said he had no issue with us just the safety concerns on the lot next door. I told him I would help him get information about the lot next door. We never heard from him again. He dropped it. It would be great if our inspector brought his humanity to work with him, but even if he did, what about addressing this on a city-wide systemic level?
2. Mayor Libby Shaaf Could Call off the Dogs:
This is not just happening to our community. This has shut down many affordable housing slots and is currently being applied across the city, resulting in real displacement, fines and added stress to those just trying to provide their own basic human necessities, some would say a natural right. The most elegant solution is to stop all blight code enforcement of homes on wheels. As of this writing, Housing Czar, Darin Ranelletti, of the Mayor’s Office is looking into if the Mayor has that authority. This would be a quick way for the Mayor to save the day and "Keep Oakland Housed" without any expenditures or logistics.
3. Add two words to The Shelter Crisis Ordinance:
Twice Oakland passed an Ordinance officially designating that we are in a shelter crisis, part of that ordinance was language that there would not be enforcement of code violations. So why are we dealing with this enforcement? According to Darin Ranelletti, that was only for city owned or city leased property. Private property is still subject to this classist policy.
Simply passing another ordinance and adding two words: “private property” could solve this.
4. Add some logic to the RV Parking Program:
In the summer of 2020, there was a new program to license RV’s Parking on vacant lots. Brilliant! This should work for us surely. In fact around the time that we received our current violation notices, our land owner also received a flyer for this program, saying that his lot may be a good fit for the program. We had an inspector who is a colleague of our code enforcer out to see our site.
He said it looked great, very clean, like an RV park. But he couldn’t sign off on it.
The program is only for one RV on one lot. This restriction is so thought through, that a year later, not one person except the individual case that the ordinance was created for is using it. It makes sense, if you were to look at it logically. Our model works because we have multiple units able to cover the fixed costs of land and utilities to operate the site. Asking one unit to cover all those costs is not viable in most cases, at that point you might as well put that money into a studio apartment. Darin explained that they created the one RV rule because two RVs means it's an RV Park according to State Law and that would trigger a state permit.
I say so what, let's have that conversation with the state. The world needs more RV Parks. The state seems genuinely in favor of more housing, its localities that are always using policy to limit density. This has been the story of Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) law.
5. Zone In RV Parks
That leads us to the RV Park solution. We’d love to get a permit to be an RV Park, this makes the most sense. Tiny Homes are RV's designed for long term living. There are all kinds of precedence for design standards, tenants rights and compliance already in place. Some of that could change to be more affordable and eco-friendly but its a great template.
The issue is that Oakland has zoned things such that there is virtually no piece of land that is allowed to be an RV Park. Change the zoning. Zoning is supposed to reflect the needs and wishes of voters, but in practice its a set of immovable restrictions that conveniently always lead back to an overpriced single family home. We'll pay a Tiny Tax. Let people vote on zoning.
6. Change Blight and Building Codes to Allow for Tiny Homes on Wheels
Finally you could just change the stupid Blight code that has been tormenting people for decades. According to Darin and many others I’ve spoken to in the city, there is an effort to do just that, its a long process that will need to amend the building codes and zoning codes, and maybe if it gets passed city council this summer, it might address our situation, or it might not and become another empty ordinance like the RV parking pilot.
All of this insanity and inhumanity is based on the virus of an idea that poverty is a disease that could infect people if not carefully restricted away. We live in a city and country designed by this idea. The result is not that poverty disappears, just that the suffering is more severe and more in the face of those that the laws were designed to protect.
Here’s the vaccine for this diseased idea (Busted: America's Poverty Myths). Lets develop herd immunity to this blighted world view. The truth is trailer parks have been an effective form of affordable housing and vessels for community networks since their inception in the 1930’s.
When you write off affordable housing slots, you limit the entrepreneur having space to create the next thing to improve our society, you limit the ability for a parent to create a safe environment for their child, you limit the artist having space to make their cultural contribution and you add a thick residue of stress and suffering to our collective human experience that leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth. A stronger, more creative, more resilient city is one where there is a low paywall to housing.