Whether you are in a state of transition, have decided to live a transient lifestyle, or simply need to live rent-free for the time being, living in a recreational vehicle (RV) may seem like a workable option at first blush. If California is your destination, there are certain laws that you need to be aware of that may impact your ability (and ultimately, your desire) to live in your RV in the Golden State.
Is it illegal to live in an RV in California? No, it is not illegal to live in an RV or your Backyard in California. However, the local government says it’s illegal to live in an RV permanently.
While there is no California law on the books that makes it outright illegal to live in an RV, there are several laws, ordinances, and regulations on the local (city and county) level that severely inhibit living in an RV, primarily by restricting where and for how long an RV can be parked.
For the growing number of people living out of their RVs in California, the challenges of maintaining the necessities of life while not running afoul of the law can be emotionally and financially draining. Contrary to popular belief, many of these people are gainfully employed, but are priced out of their local housing markets and have resorted to living in their home on wheels out of necessity.
Are there California Laws that Prohibit Living in an RV?
California is the most populous state in the country, with an estimated 39.5 million residents in 2019. (Source: US Census Bureau)
Sadly, it also leads the nation in terms of homelessness, with an estimated 130,000 people living in homeless shelters or out on the streets. (Source: Business Insider)
A growing segment of these figures are those who are living out of RVs, whether by choice or circumstance.
When it comes to living in an RV full-time, perhaps the biggest challenge is finding a suitable place to park the vehicle, and this is where city and county laws and ordinances come into play.
Local law enforcement agencies have the authority to issue citations (tickets) for violation of parking laws, and under certain circumstances, to tow away your recreational vehicle, and all of your worldly possessions and necessities of life it holds.
Parking laws can directly impact where you can park your RV and for how long, and in a larger sense, dictate whether you can functionally live in your RV in a particular California city.
How Cities Regulate and Restrict RV Parking
For many of those living in RVs, the need to be close to employment or basic services (such as healthcare, food banks, vocational training, and other social services), requires them to be domiciled in California’s major cities.
Related reading: Can You Live in a Motorhome on Your Property? Here Are The Facts
Unfortunately, it is usually in larger population centers that stricter laws are in place to regulate the greater numbers of people and their vehicles.
The authority to regulate RV parking on local streets has been largely left to municipalities. Cities, towns, and counties must balance public health and safety concerns on the one hand, and unfair treatment of homeless persons, on the other.
All the while trying to maintain their public perception as desirable places to live and work, with fair and progressive social policies.
Here is a look at how a few major metropolitan areas in California deal with RV parking on their streets:
1. LOS ANGELES
In Los Angeles County alone, there were an estimated 60,000 people considered homeless, and of those 16,000, live in their vehicles, including RVs, all vying for parking spots and safe havens on the streets of one of the largest and most heavily populated counties in the United States. (Source: CNN)
The Los Angeles City Council recently affirmed a local ordinance that places the following restrictions on RV parking on city streets:
- No RV may be parked on a residential street between the hours of 9:00 pm and 6:00 am
- No RV may be parked within 500 feet (one block) from a park, licensed school, preschool, or daycare center.
(Source: Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 85.02)
What this amounts to is forcing RV dwellers from quieter, and often safer, residential streets to thoroughfares in commercial and industrial zones, which tend to be in areas with higher crime rates and less than ideal conditions for repeated overnight stays.
In recognition of the plight of people living in RVs, and in response to a strong backlash from community activists and homeless advocates, the City of L.A. has launched a program called SafeParkingLA, which provides secure locations for people living out of their vehicles to park safely for the night.
However, spots are severely limited (several hundred through the city) and must be applied for. (Source: SafeParkingLA)
2. SAN FRANCISCO/OAKLAND
Like Los Angeles, the Bay Area cities of San Francisco and Oakland are grappling with homeless problems, with thousands of citizens living out of their vehicles.
In San Francisco, the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $3,700.00 in 2019. To put this in perspective, a person making $100,000.00 per year would spend over 40% of their gross pay toward rent.
Not only are tons of people priced out of Bay Area homes, but many of those living in RVs are also employed full-time, with homes elsewhere.
Known as “super-commuters” these workers camp out in their RVs closer to their jobs, then return home on weekends or sometimes not for months at a time.
Many Bay Area cities enforce parking restrictions on RVs, which in combination with strictly enforced parking time limits that apply to all vehicles, make it virtually impossible for a person living in an RV in the Bay Area to settle down in any particular area for longer than a day at a time.
Like L.A., safe parking sites are beginning to sprout up to assist RV dwellers in need, but there is currently a 90-day maximum stay.
(Source: The Guardian)
3. SAN DIEGO
Another city with a growing homeless problem has enacted local ordinances that restrict overnight parking of RVs on city streets.
Recognizing that a growing number of people are forced to live in their cars or RVs or else be out on the streets, San Diego allows these vehicles to be parked on certain streets for up to 72 hours (3 days) before they must be moved.
Vehicles must also abide by any posted restrictions. (Source: NBC San Diego)
4. MOUNTAIN VIEW
Located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, Mountain View is home to many prominent technology companies, led by none other than Google.
Like so many Bay Area cities, Mountain View has a very expensive housing market that many workers who are employed by companies in the city cannot afford.
Streets in Mountain View are lined with RVs and campers, housing the people who have good-paying jobs, and yet cannot afford a place to live in the area.
The Mountain View city council recently imposed a ban on RV parking on local streets (with very few exceptions), only to have the law repealed due to community outrage. (The measure will be on the November presidential election ballot.)
(Source: Mountain View Voice)
Even in California cities where parking an RV on city streets (and thereby, living in them) is permitted, certain regulations apply to everyone and every vehicle.
For instance, any vehicle parked on city streets must abide by posted signs indicating parking time limits, and all vehicles must be moved during weekly street cleanings.
RV owners must, therefore, be aware of these restrictions and be prepared to move their RV or run afoul of the law.
Related reading: Can You Live in an RV Park? Here’s Exactly What To Expect
Boondocking (Dry Camping)
Another option for RV living in California is what is known as boondocking or dry camping.
Essentially, boondocking is parking your RV in free sites on lands owned or managed by the federal or state government, with the main catch being that there are no hook-ups for water, power, or waste dumping (hence the term dry camping).
These sites are spread throughout the state and do enable RV owners to stay for free or for nominal fees. However, stays are usually limited to days or weeks, and space may be limited.
If you are willing to move from site to site and deal with the risk that sites may fill up to capacity before you get there, then boondocking may be a means to live in your RV in California for less money.
There are many reasons why people live in their RVs, such as unfortunate circumstances, job layoffs, or even a desire to live a free and tether-less lifestyle, just to name a few.
Regardless of the motivation or the reason, living in an RV in California may be legal in many parts of the state. Still, it is not without its challenges, and even a simple thing like an unpaid parking ticket can jeopardize everything.
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