We of the sinking middle class may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose.

George Orwell (1903-1950) British novelist, essayist, and critic.

Think about this.   There were foreclosure filings reported on 2.8 Million U.S. properties in 2009, a 21 percent increase in total properties from 2008 and a 120 percent increase in total properties from 2007.  The prediction for 2010 is more of the same.  And yet at the same time apartment vacancy rates are up nationwide – hitting a 30-year high of  -8 percent nationally in the fourth quarter of 2009,  even though in many areas rents have decreased.  Some vacancies are due to foreclosures of the rental properties themselves with renters being displaced during the process. But others are due to apartment dwellers who are favorably positioned to take advantage of the low home prices, moving out and purchasing a home of their own. 

The number of renters prepared to purchase (and able to get a loan) is far fewer than the number of people who are losing their homes so we aren’t exactly talking about a real-life episode of ‘Trading Spaces.’  And that disparity in numbers means there are houses that are uninhabited. Abandoned homes aren’t just eyesores or social art (see http://www.kevinbauman.com/100abandonedhouses/ and http://www.onlykent.com/20100203/home-encased-in-ice-by-two-artists-us-housing-crisis/), they are also becoming prime targets for thieves and havens for squatters- some involved in criminal activity, according to a report by the advocacy group ACORN. 

In an editorial in the NY Times titled “Slumurbia” the author describes the fate of a development built on the bulge of the real estate bubble:

“Dirty flags advertise rock-bottom discounts on empty starter mansions. On the ground, foreclosure signs are tagged with gang graffiti. Empty lots are untended, cratered with mud puddles from the winter storms that have hammered California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Nobody is home in the cities of the future.”

So there houses that are uninhabited, and apartments sitting vacant; where have all the people gone?  According to one recent study titled “Foreclosure to Homelessness 2009; the forgotten victims of the subprime crisis,” the majority are living with friends and family; staying in emergency shelters; in motels; in transitional housing; and on the street.  A minority are living in another house that they rent or own.

Why are so many people failing to find a stable place to live even though apartment vacancies are up and rents are down? The answer seems to be in part that at least some of the people who have lost their homes have also lost their jobs.  And in the process they’ve probably used up their liquid assets trying to keep their house, or had bills they couldn’t pay due to loss of income.  So they end up without a job, without a home, without assets and without good credit.  Try finding a landlord that will rent to you under those circumstances. 

People who only a short while ago were employed, housed, members of the middle class are now living on the streets!  As one respondent in the above mentioned study on foreclosure to homelessness remarked,

“This should not be happening. We were the middle class and now we are poverty stricken. We had two cars, money in the bank and a reasonable mortgage. My husband is an electrician and simply cannot find a job anywhere.  On September 12, 2008 my husband’s company sent everyone home. The company could no longer afford to pay their employees. We have had no money coming in since then and absolutely no prospects. Our savings is all gone… our home is being auctioned off. So much for the American Dream.”

Since it seems difficult to get people back into homes or apartments, some communities have begun to recognize the need to accommodate people who live in a vehicle of some sort. In Santa Barbara, California, a public sleeping-in-cars program has been in place for years.  Other communities, while railing at the growing number of homeless, continue to remain rigid in their views of appropriate housing.  Just south of Santa Barbara, officials from the city of Ventura, announced last year a pilot version of the same program, on a smaller scale on private lots, but ran into opposition from residents and business owners concerned over safety and sanitation. Citing similar concerns, the city of Camarillo banned the practice outright.  Sleeping in cars is better than being on the street.  But it’s no way to live.  It’s potentially dangerous, cramped, cold in the winter months, and lacks privacy or any sort of bathroom or kitchen facility. 

Lately I’ve come across, or have been sent, articles about other families who have lost their homes and who have, like us, resorted to living in RVs or travel trailers.  Like the Renaults who are one homeless family among more than 20 living in an RV park in Tennessee; or the Teels in Las Vegas who live in a 25-foot travel trailer with their teenaged daughter.

Following hurricane Katrina charities launched nation-wide drives asking for donations of RVs to provide housing for victims of the disaster.  Lately charitable organizations have done the same thing for the newly homeless, generally on an individual basis as with the small Ojai charity that donated a decades-old, but still working, recreational vehicle to a homeless healthcare-giver and single mother.  Great idea. But unless you have a place to park it, you have a house on wheels with no place to call home! Parking is just one aspect.  A lot of travel trailers, like ours, are not ‘self-contained’, that is we have no generator for electricity.  At the park we are hooked up to an electrical outlet and to water and sewer.  Even self-contained RVs need a dump station to periodically empty the grey and black water tanks when they are full. 

There are so many people who opt for trailers upon losing their homes that there’s a page at the Got Trouble website with ‘how to’ information for those choosing that option!  They don’t deal with the downside, however, such as the fact that many RV parks won’t let you in if your rig is old – and old is relative.  There’s one park near us that has a cut off of 3-years!  And anything older than 10-12 years isn’t allowed in any of the parks around here.  And in California you won’t find a campground that rents a space for the $10 a night mentioned in the article-try $35 to $50.  And while abandoned houses and vacant apartments abound there are relatively few RV Parks and those are diminishing in number – one near us has vacancies but can’t rent them because the park is slated to be demolished so that more houses can be built –  and fewer that allow long term parking.  RV parks, after all, are created to cater to a transient population – vacationers and retirees who are traveling around, seeing the country.  Most welcome pets but many are less than family friendly, lacking safe play areas for children.

I think RV living could be an excellent solution for many of those made newly homeless through foreclosure and job loss.  Particularly for families who have a vested interest in their community, want to maintain some semblance of continuity for their kids and don’t want to give up their pets.  Instead of trying to force these people into shelters or transitional housing with inflexible rules or impose public sleeping-in-cars programs on local residents, communities should look to developing or providing full-facility RV Parks.  Places with a reasonable rent, utility hook-ups, wireless internet and/or cable (gotta keep up those job searches after all), sanitation, laundry facilities and play areas for children.  They should relax the age restrictions on the rigs so people can park those ‘decades-old, but still working’ RVs in the park.  And they should hire some of those unemployed folks to manage the park, keep the grounds, and provide maintenance.  These parks could become stable and safe communities and for-profit business concerns- helping both the economy and the homeless.