OAKLAND, Calif. — Behind a tall, purple fence on a vacant lot in West Oakland, Adam Garrett-Clark is running a housing experiment.
About a half-dozen people who don't want to or can't afford a traditional apartment live here instead, in trailers and RVs outfitted with solar power, hot water and most of the other comforts of home. The bohemian space looks like a cross between a trailer park and a cheerful community garden — colorful and full of plants, with an open-air shower, a portable toilet, a grill and a fire pit encircled by deck chairs.
Garrett-Clark leases the 10th Street lot, and residents pay $600 a month — well below the $1,950 average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the city.
But RV communities like Garrett-Clark's are illegal in Oakland, and the city is trying to shut it down. Garrett-Clark is fighting to save both the 10th Street space and his dreams of combating the Bay Area's affordable housing crisis with out-of-the-box alternatives.
"I think I should have a right to set up my own low-budget home," Garrett-Clark said. "As a California kid, there's no way to buy a house. It's very, very hard to become a homeowner and get that housing security."
RVs have become a hot-button issue in cities throughout the Bay Area as residents priced out of the traditional housing and rental markets increasingly are moving into homes on wheels. But there are very few places in the region where someone can legally park a trailer or RV. The vehicles line city streets, sparking complaints about trash, pollution and blight, and pressuring cities to come up with solutions.
In Palo Alto, RVs parked next to the Stanford campus get regular tow warnings, prompting them to move down the road and back. Pacifica is fighting a lawsuit after making certain city streets off-limits to RV parking. Richmond attempted to create a sanctioned safe-parking site for RVs, but abandoned the idea last month after community pushback.
Garrett-Clark moved into his first RV in 2014, while working shuttling tourists around the Embarcadero as a San Francisco pedicab driver. For a while, he parked on land leased in West Oakland by Boxouse founder Luke Iseman, who was trying to create tiny homes out of shipping containers. The city shut down that space in 2015 because it wasn't permitted.
That's when Garrett-Clark stumbled upon the vacant 10th Street lot, which was being used to store construction materials. The owner agreed to rent it to him for $1,600 a month, and Garrett-Clark signed a lease that lists the official purpose as "storage" for RVs and vehicles.
Isaia diGennaro moved into the 10th Street lot earlier this year after a long period spent couch surfing. The 24-year-old has been laid off from two jobs during the pandemic — one at an environmental nonprofit, the other at an Oakland coffee shop. Unable to afford an apartment, diGennaro, who is trans and uses they/them pronouns, bought a $5,000 RV with help from two nonprofits that serve queer and trans youth.