When housing is too pricey, RVs become home

John Orr
The Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Few would argue that the Bay Area is a great place to live — if you can afford it.

And that’s the rub. For every newly hired tech worker drawing a big salary, there’s a waitress or gardener or some other support worker who is getting priced out of a region where the down payment on a home can exceed $200,000 and rents continue to skyrocket.

At the beginning of this month, for example, a median one-bedroom apartment went for $2,120 in Mountain View and $2,470 in Palo Alto, according to Two-bedroom units fetched $2,660 and $3,100, respectively.

So what happens to those who don’t want to move out of the area, commute here from distant cities or settle into homeless encampments?

More and more, they’re turning to cars, trucks or recreational vehicles for shelter.

“It’s difficult to know how many there are,” said Tom Myers, executive director of the Community Services Agency of Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. “Our clients at CSA … the last time they counted, as of about eight months ago, we had about 391 homeless clients, with about 89 living in vehicles. … The number of homeless has grown astronomically, exponentially.”

According to the Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey, the number of homeless people in Mountain View rose 51 percent in just two years, from 276 in 2015 to 416 in 2017.

“The whole idea of people living in vehicles … we’ve never seen that to the degree we see now. It’s a relatively new phenomenon for us and for the community,” Myers said.

Who are some of these mobile homeless?


Isabelle Valdez, who will be 20 on Aug. 29, had been living with her boyfriend Derek in a rental in San Jose when they got a notice that their rent was going to be raised significantly.

Valdez is taking college courses to become a veterinary technician and works part-time at an area pet hospital. Derek, 26, whose last name she doesn’t want to give, is studying automotive technology.

The couple had looked for low-income housing, “but the waiting lists are really long,” Valdez said. So, they scraped together $6,000, much of it student aid, and bought a small RV to live in.

Parked near a park in Mountain View, the RV shook every time a car sped past during an interview for this story.

They used to park elsewhere, Valdez said, but “a lady asked me why I didn’t leave. … It’s not like we caused problems. I have a job, I go to school, I’m a normal person.”

Little RV communities also have sprung up in other parts of Mountain View.

Two small rescue dogs, Loco and Odyssey, noisily ate their lunch inside crates that take up much of the seating and sleeping area while Valdez spoke.

Valdez and Derek no longer sleep in the RV, which they have cleaned up and are trying to sell, hopefully for a larger RV. They sleep in an SUV parked in front of the RV.

“Derek took out the back seats and put a mattress in there,” Valdez said.

Valdez and Derek have gotten help from the CSA.

“The food bank is really awesome,” Valdez said. “They gave us food, backpacks, dog food, pet supplies. They have supportive people to talk to, and they helped sign us up for housing.”

She said she earns about $800 a month and receives $80 a month in food stamps.

Valdez, who grew up in the region and bounced from her mother’s house to her father’s when her mother went to prison, said this isn’t the lifestyle she would have chosen.

But, she added, “I have a lot of good things going for me. School, working in a veterinary hospital — I do want to work in the veterinary field.”

Once they finish school, Valdez said, “Derek and I want to move out of California, maybe to Oregon.”


Art McGee lives in a big RV parked on Latham Street, next to a Target parking lot.

“I got it in D.C. to follow my daughter,” McGee said jokingly. “They thought I’d be easy to lose.”

His daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife share a home a few miles away, and McGee, who is 68, likes to be readily available to baby-sit or dog-sit, as the need arises.

“To keep the dogs from eating the couches,” he said.

McGee said he was born in Louisiana but lived a long time in Texas.

“I could get a job in Texas or Louisiana,” he said, “but I can do some good here.”

McGee is referred to by some in the community of about 10 RVs on Latham Street as “the mayor,” according to Christine Dastur, who used to live next door to him in her own RV but is now his roommate.

McGee says he has spoken with the mayor of Mountain View and regularly talks with the police officers who come by.

“They told me we don’t cause problems,” McGee said.

Mike Taber, the Mountain View Police Department’s new community outreach officer, said earlier this month that “Latham Street is very, very manageable compared to the rest of town. If ordinances are being followed, we try to leave them alone.”

Other RV communities tend to be more of a problem, Taber said, noting, for instance, that there’s quite a bit of trash between the motor homes on one area street and a fence that runs alongside nearby train tracks.

“We’re not targeting that now,” Taber said, “but eventually we will be targeting the trash. “For the most part (the RV dwellers) are ordinary citizens, and we treat them that way.”

McGee pretty much has everything worked out. He has internet via a T-Mobile hot spot and a generator to keep his computer going. He sits comfortably at the door of his RV or on its roof to read books — hard copies or with a Kindle app.

He showers at a 24-Hour Fitness, which costs him $43 a month, and spends $35 a week to have his waste tank emptied.

“I used to use a dump at an RV park in Redwood City,” he said, referring to an area town, “but now I use a service. They know what to do. I don’t even have to interact with them.”

He keeps the area around his RV swept up, and all the folks in the other RVs tend to help each other when they can. A mobile home with no starter might get pushed from place to place on Tuesdays and Thursdays to avoid parking tickets, and everybody watches out for everybody else.

McGee uses a small Segway for trips up to 41/2 miles in Mountain View and gets by on $1,200 a month from Social Security and the occasional check that shows up from people who owe him money.

He’s on Medicare and has been treated at a nearby clinic.

Though he’s friendly and easygoing, McGee said residents in the neighborhood avoid eye contact when walking past, assuming “we are perverts or addicts or something. … They don’t see us. They don’t know us.”

Could he try getting a job in California? Maybe.

But going back to work “would interfere with what my life is, and my life is my grandchildren. I want to be of some use to someone.”


Christine Dastur, his current roommate, makes no bones that this isn’t the kind of life she envisioned, though it does have some good moments.

She came from a family that had some money, and maybe still does, although none of it went her way and she wouldn’t ask for it — not even from her daughter, a successful businesswoman in New York.

Back in the day, Dastur was a PanAm stewardess, when they were still called by that name and famously wore girdles and pearls.

She traveled to Aruba, Nairobi, St. Martin, and met and married a Persian.

When she was traveling six months a year, the marriage was OK. But when the PanAm job ended and she was home all the time, her husband started restricting her freedoms, she said. No driving, for instance.

So she worked out a deal with her hairdresser, who overcharged her for two years and banked the extra money for her until she accumulated enough to buy a ticket and leave.

She earned master’s degrees in education and special education and taught for years in New York, Dastur said.

Then “I made a mistake, getting hooked up with not-a-gentleman,” she said. The two came to Latham Street in an RV. “He got help from the VA, got an apartment, and he dumped me here in an RV. The starter doesn’t work.”

That man “still has my Persian rugs and my ivory,” Dastur said, and she is worried about her RV because she can’t always get it moved on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and has been ticketed.

She’s afraid it will get towed, which is why she moved all her remaining belongings into McGee’s RV.

Dastur, 64, lives on $1,300 a month in disability payments, she said.

She speaks Spanish, and helps out in the little Latham Street RV neighborhood by translating for her neighbors when needed, and by teaching a grandfather to speak English.

She’s received help from the CSA, including a bus pass for getting around town, and is hoping the agency can help her obtain financing to fix her RV before it gets towed.

She is chatty and friendly, despite shedding the occasional tear when talking about her lot in life. Like McGee, she reads a lot of books and wishes passersby were friendlier.

She is making the most of her situation.

But it is not the life she would have chosen.