As California's housing crisis worsens, more residents are forced to sleep in their cars

Kathy, 65, and Phil, 74, live together in this RV along with their aging Standard Poodle in a parking lot on December 18, 2017 in Santa Barbara, California. She currently works part time in Santa Barbara and struggles financially. She says she spent her career working as a paralegal and was a homeowner.
Francine Orr | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Income inequality in California is getting worse.

In affluent areas such as Santa Barbara, the cost of living continues to rise while wages stay stagnant, leaving residents struggling to make ends meet. Even many of those with jobs can barely afford to stay in the city they've called home for years, and more of them are now forced to live out of their cars.

"It's a kind of middle-class homelessness," writes Steve Lopez in an article on the issue for the Los Angeles Times.

One local organization taking aim at the problem is the New Beginnings Counseling Center, which runs Safe Parking, a program that matches approved clients with monitored parking spots in lots near churches, government offices and nonprofits, where they can stay overnight.

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The Safe Parking program has been around since 2004 but, just in the past 18 months, it has expanded from 20 lots to 23, according to the L.A. Times. There's also a waiting list of more than 40 families.

Of the program's 150 clients, 40 percent are employed, including Marva Ericson, a certified nurse assistant currently living out of her Kia. After a series of seizures forced Ericson to quit her job, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor while taking care of her dying mother.

Although Ericson regained her health and was able to return to work, she still struggled to make ends meet. Despite working two jobs, earning between $12 and $14 an hour, she lost her apartment three months ago and has been spending nights in her car since.

"I wake up and I say, 'Thank you God for keeping me safe last night, and thank you for the Safe Parking program,'" Ericson told the L.A. Times.

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Santa Barbara residents aren't the only ones forced to live out of vehicles and trying to deal with the related challenges. In San Jose, the growing number of RV dwellers have a hard time finding places to park. "I have to do whatever I have to do," Robert Ramirez, a 54-year-old resident who lives out of his RV and collects recyclables for money, told The Mercury News.

As housing prices in the Bay Area continue to rise and an increasing number of residents turn to cars and RVs as their primary residences, local officials must figure out how to support the growing population while fielding a corresponding rise in complaints about RV communities from other residents, The Mercury News reports.

"You're not just towing a vehicle," Tom Myers, executive director of Community Services Agency of Mountain View, told the News. "You're towing someone's home."

In San Francisco, the cost of living and the housing crisis are a pressing issue as well, and not just for the working and middle class.

When Houston-based law firm Patterson and Sheridan expanded to Silicon Valley, it opted to keep employees in Texas rather than have relocate to California. Now the lawyers commute once a month for meetings on a nine-seat, $3 million jet equipped with maple-paneled cabins and plush leather seats. It was, remarkably, the cost-effective decision.

Even with the cost of the jet, plus the $2,500 per hour cost to operate it, the firm says it can offer clients lower prices because most of the work is done in Houston, where commercial real estate is 43 percent cheaper, salaries are 52 percent lower and competition for technical talent less fierce, according to an original report in the Houston Chronicle.

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Meanwhile, white-collar employees at local tech behemoths like Twitter and Facebook have also reported struggling to make ends meet. Earlier this year, one Twitter employee earning a $160,000 salary told The Guardian that he's barely scraping by in Silicon Valley.

The employee's biggest expense is the $3,000 monthly rent he pays on a two-bedroom house where he lives with his wife and two kids, which he describes as "ultra cheap."

Families are priced out of the market," he says, explaining that it's hard to compete with the hordes of 20-somethings willing to pile into a shared house — and still pay $2,000 per person for a room.

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