Some San Jose residents turn to RVs for affordable housing

MOUNTAIN VIEW (KTVU) -- One South Bay community is seeing soaring demand for housing -- so much so that some residents are redefining the concept of housing itself.

In the 2300 block of Latham Street, a fleet of old-time RVs line the street. They aren't parked, however, as play things for the affluent. These RVs are symbolic of a new concept for affordable housing and represents a neighborhood within a neighborhood.

"What's happening all over the country is between the housing crisis and the mortgage thing and just low incomes that we've got, many people that were middle class before but can't afford rent," said Jess Jessop, who lives in an RV parked in the Mountain View neighborhood.

Jessop has been at the helm of his 30-foot Pathfinder motor home for at least 12 years. It has one bedroom, one bathroom and is also equipped with one bedroom, one bathroom and comes with captain's chairs and a steering wheel. He shares the vehicle with his rescue dog, named Yee-Ha.

During the initial dot-com boom, Jessup was CEO owning a majority-stake in a company similar to, before the latter firm became an online powerhouse. When the bubble burst happened in 2001, Jessop lost millions of dollars and his Tahoe home. He and his two sons were forced to live in a bus, a pre-cursor to the RV he currently calls home.

Now Jessop is trying to catch lightning in a bottle again, hoping that his new start-up venture will spark the return of traditional home living. The biggest stumbling block, however, is the cost of South Bay housing.

"We came down here and looked at the rents and thought there is no way," he recalls. "I'm a disabled veteran living on a disability check and boot-strapping this thing so we got this old motor home and we found this spot here."

Several of the RV neighborhoods dot the South Bay landscape, like the area on Crisanto Avenue next to Rengstorff Park, where up to 40 RVs are parked. In some cases, the RV neighborhoods are near homes whose costs reach up to $1 million.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, people living in the RVs are technically homeless. Said Jessop: "This might technically be homeless but it beats the heck out of that sidewalk out there."

Mountain View city officials say there are at least 287 people who don't have adequate shelter on any given night. They are working-class families with kids and pets. Workers at some social service agencies say they care for about double that number, indicating a growing problem.

Mayor Pat Showalter says parking restrictions only prohibit the size and extended stays in one parking spot. So people who live in RVs are not breaking the law.

"They've chosen to be where they wanted to" be, Showalter said. "The city never instructed them about that. It's just happened organically."

Inocente Saldivar, his wife and two kids were priced out of the rental market a year ago when their rent hit $2,700 a month for a one bedroom. Now, he pays $600 a month plus gas to live in an RV. That means his 13-year-old daughter can remain enrolled in the Mountain View school district.

"The rents are like $3,000," he said. "I need to make maybe $5,000 (a month) because I'm including my food (costs). It's too expensive. My family has everything here" in the RV.

Residents who live in the area say they are empathetic to the plight of those facing sky high housing costs.

"I think it's terribly said (and) a sign of the times," said Corey Sommers, who works in the area. "It's a sign that we have a severe affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area."

Some others complain that living conditions brought on by merging mobile and conventional homes into one neighborhood can change the quality of life for the area.

"There's a lot of garbage . . . a lot of appliance on the street and on the sidewalks," said one woman who lives in the area and requested anonymity.

"My daughter is 15," said resident James Smith. "When she has her friends over at 8 o'clock at night do I want her walking through a motor home encampment to get to Target? No."

"We do know the hygiene issue is a problem and it's something we have to solve," the mayor said. "We understand that there are problems for both the neighbors and the vehicle dwellers and we're trying to be sensitive to the needs of both groups."

RV residents rely on waste removal trucks to routinely service their mobile homes. City officials say this does not violate public health codes as long as the waste is disposed of properly. Social service providers say the best solution is to create more affordable housing.

There are currently 1,200 residential units classified as affordable and city officials say another 3,000 are in the pipeline. And long-term plans call for the construction of 10,000 units on the Mountain View bay shore over the next few years.

"We know long-term solutions are really permanent supportive housing for individuals with disabling conditions," said Ki Le, an official in the Santa Clara Office of Supportive Housing.

The city is considering implementing a pilot program where those who live in RVs and other vehicles can park in and not worry about violating the rights of residential property owners. The plan would call for allowing inexpensive, overnight parking for 14 families.

Said Jessop: "Until we find a better solution . . . what else can we do? If you at least manage this it doesn't have to be a ghetto and it doesn't have to be a problem. It can be a hand up."

Jessop has lobbied Congress in an attempt to make mobile home living more manageable across the country. He said he plans to keep living behind the wheel until his new venture takes off and he can park inside a traditional home.

Saldivar said he and his family will stay in an RV for a second year because of rising rents.

"These people have one fingernail trying to hang on to the American dream and pull themselves up," he said. "If we give them half a chance they'll all get off the street."