The growing RV community in Seattle has been reduced by the public to a slum on wheels. But this need not be the case. A change of attitude might change the relationship this community has with its city. And such a transformation will not occur if we do not situate the increase of RVs in the context of Seattle's housing market. They are correlated. As Seattle Times real estate reporter Mike Rosenberg points out in an article about the Seattle area home market—which "has now led the nation in home price increases for 20 months in a row," and is now "tied for the second-longest streak"—the affordability crisis is only worsening.
In the metro area, single-family homes grew in April by an astonishing 13.1 percent. The median price for homes in Seattle is now $830,000—and it's almost a million on the Eastside. These prices are doing two things. One, they are affecting other prices in other parts of the regional market, including the rental market (more about this in another post). And two, rising prices are synchronizing Seattle's real estate market with the more inflated one in Vancouver BC and, more importantly, in the Bay Area. (I say 'more importantly' because the Bay Area and the Seattle area have similar economies; each has huge tech and research sectors.)
The importance of this synchronization is that it places the Bay Area in Seattle's future. That is the kind of city we are likely to become. (The same is also true for Vancouver BC, but for reasons relating to speculative buying or flipping). So, looking a the Bay Area is like taking a peek into our future. And what do we see in this future? Here is something. It's a story in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Silicon Valley bus drivers sleep in parking lots. They may have to make way for development." It's about middle-class workers living in RVs because they can't afford to live in the city.
On weekdays, bus driver Adan Miranda hauls people across Silicon Valley. But his own roughly 100-mile commute home to a Sacramento suburb nearly killed him, so 15 years ago he decided to start sleeping in a San Jose parking lot four nights a week.More and more middle class workers in the Bay Area are doing the same. They might own a house in the suburbs, but the distance between that home and work is impossibly long, and so they live in RVs that are parked near their relatively high-paying jobs. In fact, Miranda's employer, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, pays for his RV's parking space. (A bus driver for VTA can earn up to $80,000 a year.)
Seattle is still in dreamland when it comes to its housing crisis. It has no policies or programs that realistically correspond with the rapidly changing environment of its hot-money economy. But as working- and middle-class workers move to distant suburbs and even small towns that might have cheaper homes but no high-paying jobs (those are concentrated in the unaffordable core)—and, as a consequence, traffic jams worsen—other modes of habitation (or relationships between the expensive core and the cheaper periphery) need to be considered and even de-stigmatized.
I have already noted in the post "Seattle's New Normal: Homelessness Is Now Middle Class," that functional, working-class people appear to be living in some RVs. But much of the city still codes this mode of living as an aberration and not as a sensible adaptation to a market condition that's almost entirely structured to meet the housing demands for the global rich and the local upper middle classes. Because there is no political will in this city to check price inflation in the housing market, the stuff of science-fictional urbanism needs to be considered and even realized.
RVs represent a form of science fictional urbanism. They are to the post-Fordist, neoliberal city what rockets are for the Space Age in J.G. Ballard's "The Dead Astronaut." They issue from another, dying stage of this technology-saturated civilization—the period that the Federal-Aid Highway Act launched in 1956. This moment gave us motels, drive-ins, the suburbs, and, of course, homes on wheels, the recreational vehicle. But just as the space program in the science fiction story "The Dead Astronaut" is in ruins, large parts of the highway network is deteriorating, returning to nature. Indeed, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant recently closed over 100 bridges in his state after the Federal Highway Administration demanded that no traffic be allowed on bridges considered "unsafe." This is the highway in ruins.
After 50 or so glorious years of the road, the RV enters the city, but does not pass through it. It stays there permanently and is repurposed for an urban environment that is structured spatially and socially by unchecked home price inflation.