An RV is parked on a grey streets. Other cars and camper vans behind it.
The Berkeley City Council on Thursday banned RVs from parking overnight in Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Recreational vehicles will have to roll out of town soon, per a citywide ban on overnight parking.

The Berkeley City Council voted Thursday to enforce a prohibition on parking from 2-5 a.m., while developing a permitting system exempting some RVs for two weeks each year. Officials promised a packed room at Thursday’s special meeting that they’re still looking into a location for a trailer park somewhere in the East Bay too.

The decision came after two hours of passionate public comment, with RV occupants telling the council they simply can’t afford any other housing and have nowhere else to go.

Some owners of homes and companies in West Berkeley, where most of the RVs are clustered, applauded the ban, saying health and safety issues have come up around the vehicles, scaring away business.

Thursday’s vote concluded discussions that began a year ago, when many RVs had been parked for months along Marina Boulevard. The city received safety complaints from marina visitors and the neighboring DoubleTree Hotel, and eventually kicked the vehicles out, building parking spaces for smaller cars in their stead. The RV inhabitants, several of whom have formed a group called Berkeley Friends on Wheels, relocated to the nearby former Hs Lordships parking lot.

When the city gave them a week’s notice there too — citing a provision of the state land grant requiring Berkeley to use the marina for waterfront-related purposes only — at least a couple dozen ended up around Eighth and Harrison streets, lining a few blocks.

Berkeley police have counted around 200 RVs throughout the city.

“While I’m very sympathetic to the challenges people are facing, we have to question at some point, how much more can we as a city accommodate?” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín at the meeting.

In September, the council directed city staff to look into options for managing RV parking. Staff came back with two proposals Thursday: a ban on parking from 2-5 a.m. and an online 14-day permitting system. The overnight parking ban already applies to “commercial vehicles,” and the definition has already been interpreted to apply to RVs in the past, but the amendment makes it explicit.

Both options, staff said, would be paired with new resources and services offered to RV dwellers.

Berkeley police and staff present options for managing RV parking to the City Council on Thursday, Feb. 28. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley Police Lt. Randy Files said his research turned up no cities with model approaches to similar issues. Most surrounding towns have bans on longterm RV parking, but few actively enforce them or act more aggressively, he said.

“No one wants to be the one getting attention [for] being the ones driving people away,” Files said.

The City Council ended up passing an all-of-the-above option, with the overnight ban and the permit, and directed staff to seek out private lots like churches that might allow RVs to park for months at a time, so long as the owners are engaged in city homelessness services and trying to get housed — a suggestion made by Councilwoman Sophie Hahn.

Rashi Kesarwani, whose district includes the largest cluster of RVs, said she’s talked with their inhabitants — including families with kids in Berkeley schools — as well as concerned businesses, and hears daily from frustrated neighbors. She said she wants “everyone in our community to have a safe place to be.”

“It really does bother me that cities like Berkeley are put in this impossible position of having to balance the needs” of all the groups on its own, she said. But “we need to manage the immediate situation in West Berkeley.”

The item passed 6-3, with council members Cheryl Davila, Kate Harrison and Rigel Robinson voting against it. Davila had previously tried to refer the issue back to a council policy committee, but didn’t get enough votes.

Robinson said “I can’t find in my heart” to kick unhoused people out of town without giving them an alternative.

“As little as I may be able to sleep after this, I’ll have the privilege of doing so in a bed,” he said. 

The 14-day permit he called “a vacation, not a safety net.”

“Y’all put us in the streets of Tesla”

On a rainy morning earlier this week, 20-30 RVs and vans snaked around the corner of Eighth and Harrison streets, near the new Tesla service center and in front of a pottery studio.

Curtains covered most of the vehicles’ windows, but a couple of people came in and out of their trailers and motor homes throughout the morning.

Frank Calloway, who’s lived in an RV in Berkeley for almost a year, said that morning that he’d be “out of here” if the council approved the overnight parking ban. He plans to head back home to Ohio.

Close-up of bumper stickers on an RV. One says "Home is where you park it."
Around 20 to 30 RVs and vans were parked along Eighth and Harrison streets earlier this week. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

He regrets ever “getting off at the University exit” when he came out west, but said of his fellow RV dwellers, “this is my community” now.

Calloway said the group was content to be out of the way of residential and commercial areas while at the marina, but that complaints were inevitable when they were forced into city neighborhoods.

“Y’all put us in the streets of Tesla. We’re playing with people with a lot of money,” he said. At one point Calloway thought the RV cohort should just buy some communal land nearby but, “This is Berkeley. The dirt’s expensive.”

Parked next to Calloway, another man, who didn’t want to give his name, said he and his wife have always been resigned to following the rules. Sometimes they’ve moved their RV daily — and even hourly during a period when the 2-5 a.m. ban was enforced, he said. He has lived in Berkeley for five years and that morning was getting on his bike to go to his audio engineering job.

“For the most part, most of us do this because we’re trying to save money or make a living,” he said.

He doesn’t fault people for being annoyed, but asked to be given a little slack: “We’re not here to bother anyone. We can bend with them, but not all the way over. I’d like to see us come to some agreement.”

Numerous speakers — owners of RVs, and nearby homes and shops alike — made their pitches to the council Thursday, as the line for public comment stretched around two walls of the meeting room and continued to grow.

Scott Huffman of Read Investments, which owns 901 Gilman St., the old Pyramid Brewing facility where Tesla now operates, said the RVs have thwarted his efforts to attract and satisfy tenants.

The businesses that have opened there “are being crushed by the fact that they can’t find parking spaces for visitors and employees,” he said. 

Some residents said they have been finding human waste in bags in front of their houses or on the sidewalks since the RVs showed up. The nearest dumping stations for RVs are at least a few towns away.

Some speakers said the city should just provide sanitation or pump-out facilities instead of banning the vehicles altogether. Others said most RV owners aren’t to blame.

“I don’t use the [RV] plumbing, so the whole human waste thing is not something I do,” said Michael Smith. The PhD student lives in an RV with his girlfriend, who attends community college, and an elderly man. “I’m the only one who makes enough money to take care of the three of us.… living in an RV is the situation that works best for us now,” Smith said.

One man told the council it’s not only homeless people who’d be affected by a parking ban. He owns a home in Berkeley and can’t afford to park his RV — which he uses for travel — anywhere other than in front of the house.

The original staff proposal would have affected many more people. It suggested expanding the definition of “house car” to any vehicle someone sleeps in and further restricting those. Nobody on the council advocated for that change.

Cameras, outhouses part of illegal dumping initiative

The crowd at Thursday’s meeting had thinned significantly by the time the council took up the next item of the night — a range of new approaches to handling illegal dumping.

While City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley stressed that recent trash build-up on Berkeley streets is not solely because of increased homelessness, most of her proposals related to encampments.

Caltrans and CHP told campers to move their belongings, and cleared out garbage, after numerous people complained about trash build-up near the University Avenue and Frontage Road encampment in January. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The council unanimously — without Harrison, who left sick mid-meeting — approved all the city manager’s recommendations for a “clean and livable commons.”

The vote authorizes new lighting and cameras at locations where trash accumulates, new staff to address “debris and other negative impacts related to encampments,” five new portable bathrooms and new storage lockers near encampments, and a “citizen awareness campaign.” Staff did not provide a cost for the additional expenditures. Staff said the city will use a big chunk of the $4 million coming in state emergency homelessness funds to cover this work, but will need to come up with more money as well.

Arreguín also proposed increased fines for illegal dumping and exploring employment opportunities for unhoused people to work on the clean-up. Hahn proposed a temporary waste pump-out solution for RVs while the new policies are getting off the ground. All the suggestions were included in the final vote.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...