‘Not my preferred way of living’: Where overnight RVs can be, and when, remains in city-discussion gridlock
With Delaware Avenue and Natural Bridges Drive the epicenter of vehicle abatement in Santa Cruz, local officials are working on an ordinance that would create a permitting process for those who want to sleep overnight in their oversized vehicles.
Ron lives on Delaware Avenue, in a row of RVs and trailers, in his 31-foot-long motorhome. The 68-year-old self-described “area native” has been shuffling around the Natural Bridges area for a couple of months but has lived in the RV since 2016.
“This is not my preferred way of living,” said Ron, who asked to keep his last name anonymous. “This is what I did in an emergency, and the emergency turned into a long-term thing.”
Ron said he previously owned a home in Ben Lomond and worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley for nearly 30 years. But he lost everything in 2013 after his wife died, and he went bankrupt after his retirement funds went sideways amid the recession. He bought an RV to live in, thinking it would be temporary, but even with a Section 8 housing voucher, he’s been unable to find affordable housing for years.
“I want to be out of the way,” he said. “I don’t want to be any trouble to anybody.”
But Ron lives in one of approximately 65 oversized vehicles that frequent the lower Westside, which puts him in the crosshairs of a developing imbroglio among neighborhood groups, housing advocates and city government about where vehicle inhabitants can safely and lawfully park overnight.
In 2020, Delaware Avenue and Natural Bridges Drive saw the city’s most vehicle abatement cases by far, and neighbors aren’t happy, citing parking, sanitation and safety concerns. After what Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills described as decades of community complaints, the city council might finally be instituting a ban on RV parking — with some exceptions.
“The goal of the ordinance is balance,” said Mills, referencing the need for both compassion and accountability.
During a special meeting Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council introduced amendments to an ordinance that would ban all parking for oversized vehicles on any public highway, street, alley or city parking lot between midnight and 5 a.m., unless the vehicle has a specific permit from the city, among other exemptions. The ordinance would also call for expanding the city’s safe parking options, where RV dwellers could park overnight for free.
“We’re really trying to make this a win-win for everyone in the community,” Councilmember Renee Golder said in the meeting.
Golder, along with Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner and Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, brought forward the conversation, which stems from the city’s policy discussions on camping last spring. Brunner said the councilmembers also hoped to reconsider a similar 2015 ordinance, which banned overnight parking for oversized vehicles between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. — without offering any permit system or safe parking program.
In 2016, the California Coastal Commission appealed the ordinance, noting the city’s failure to provide alternate parking solutions and data.
This time around, the city prepared for legal challenges from the commission: It proposed delaying enforcement of the ordinance until the city has either expanded its permit program or created an equivalent safe parking program in the county. For both these options, vehicles must be registered in Santa Cruz for at least six months — one point several councilmembers and homeless advocates highlighted as a potential barrier for the unhoused community.
On top of that, advocates say just paying for registration can be a barrier.
“These people are experiencing poverty, and oftentimes, they cannot afford registration,” Kayla Kumar, a local organizer and former city council candidate, told Lookout.
As currently proposed, permits for people who qualify as “residents” would be valid for one year and allow oversized vehicle parking for four periods of up to 72 consecutive hours per calendar month. This means people could legally park overnight on the streets for 12 days out of every month. Permit prices have yet to be determined.
The proposed ordinance applies to oversized vehicles that are more than 20 feet in length and 8 feet in height, shrinking the length allowance by five feet.
City officials hope to complement this program with an expanded safe parking program, which is currently spearheaded by the Association of Faith Communities. Currently, AFC offers 15 parking spots in the city — most of which are on religious sites — along with 21 spots outside the city, such as in Aptos.
Rev. Joseph Jacobs, the program manager of AFC’s SafeSpaces, noted in the meeting that the city has never sponsored the safe parking program. He said the city previously told him there wasn’t any funding available for SafeSpaces, and he questioned where funding for the program would come from.
Kalantari-Johnson mentioned that the city is also talking to county partners to identify parking locations in unincorporated areas.
‘Divisions in our community’
According to Kumar, issues related to homelessness often “reveal in a unique way the divisions in our community.” Most members of the public who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting agreed: They said they view the proposed ordinance as inhumane and an attempt by the city to criminalize homelessness.
When talking to people living in RVs on Delaware Street, Lookout found that some had already paid over $1,000 in parking tickets, often getting more than one in a single night. Since January, the police department reported receiving 2,456 calls relating to recreational vehicles or abandoned vehicles. The SCPD has given warnings to 294 recreational vehicles, saying they must move within 72 hours, and towed about 12 of them, the department reported.
“Why do they treat us like this?” asked Ron. “Have mercy on the homeless. We’re people too. We’re not druggies. We’re not criminals. We’re just people who are down on our luck.”
A representative from Santa Cruz Cares, previously known as Westside Cares, told the council, “You have chosen to tow, ticket and hand out misdemeanors to people who are financially unable to comply with this policy, directly creating more unsheltered homelessness.”
But many Westside homeowners told a different story.
“As a father, it’s difficult to hear my children say they are scared of walking down the street,” said Manuel, a representative of Westside Neighbors who did not provide his last name.
In particular, both a city report and members of the public highlighted sanitation concerns, claiming RV dwellers were dumping sewage in the streets and down storm drains.
The report states, “One of the issues that is most often raised with regard to extended oversized vehicle parking is the discharge of raw sewage onto City streets and into storm drains.”
Some people living in RVs told Lookout this is a myth, while others admitted it happens occasionally.
At the Tuesday meeting, city staff reported that an RV dumping site at 1220 River St. is still under consideration following a 2020 recommendation from the city’s Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness.
One of the issues that is most often raised with regard to extended oversized vehicle parking is the discharge of raw sewage onto City streets and into storm drains.
— City report
“The current conditions are unsanitary and unsafe and in no way compassionate to anyone,” community member Samantha Petovello wrote in a letter.
The city received about 400 letters both in support of and opposition to the proposed ordinance, though the public turnout at the Tuesday meeting, at 20, was underwhelming.
Councilmember Justin Cummings advocated for allowing as much public input as possible before the council makes any decisions.
“I think what we really need to do is show that there is a diverse and inclusive community process that really provides enough time for people to weigh in,” he said.
Ultimately, the council voted to allow more time for public comment on the ordinance at its Oct. 26 meeting. It also voted in favor of the mayor establishing a subcommittee to work with staff on further exploring options for a safe parking program.