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RVs are becoming an alternative to high rents in LA

This once-inhabited RV sits on a tow lot in South Los Angeles. If no one claims it, it'll go up for sale. L.A. officials say increasingly, investors buy up RV's like this and rent them out to people who have trouble finding affordable housing.  Rina Palta/ for Marketplace

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Melody Groundflyer lives in a rented box truck in the Silver Lake Neighborhood of Los Angeles.

“It’s kind of exciting,” she said. “I mean, I don’t plan on doing it forever, but for now it’s kind of exciting and fun.”

There’s a solar panel on the roof, she has a camping stove, a cooler, and a camping toilet. When it gets hot, she puts dry ice in a bucket with an upside down fan.

“I have a gym membership and I shower after I work out every day,” she said.

Anybody who lives in a vehicle on the street is considered homeless, and LA County estimates about 16,000 people fall into that category. Although Groundflyer would technically meet that definition, she thinks of the vehicle as viable rental option. 

The city’s affordable housing crunch makes it hard even for people who earn a decent wage to find a place to live. So entrepreneurs, seeing an opportunity, have jumped in to create this new housing option: rented out RVs and vans.

Groundflyer, who grew up in the desert outside LA, is now a cable technician. She makes a decent living — around $45,000 a year.

“I don’t have a minimum wage job, but it’s a struggle to find a place you can afford,” she said.

She started looking on craigslist for apartments, but one bedrooms in LA are expensive, and in this neighborhood, go for upwards of $2,000 dollars a month. Then she started seeing ads for RVs for a quarter of that the price. A couple ads felt sketchy. But then she met Russell Savala.

“I trusted him immediately,” she said. “He’s one of those good hippy people.”

Savala, her landlord, has a growing fleet of box trucks and RVs for rent in the neighborhood that he and his business partner, an electrician, have bought for cheap and cleaned up.

An RV, parked just south of Sunset Boulevard, has one tenant so far. But Savala was looking for a second person to take the other bunk.

“Two beds, shared living section,” he said. The bunk in the RV goes for $200 per week, a whole RV goes for $1,000 a month, and box trucks for $500 per month.

“Which is insane, honestly,” Savala said. “But you don’t have a contract, you don’t have a deposit or anything. So it works for some people.”

In L.A.’s rental market, it appears to be working for more and more people. Browse the classifieds in LA for a week and ads will show up for RVs to live in for rent all over the city.

Los Angeles Police Officer Sean Dinse said that’s a problem.

“I don’t think there’s a code when it comes to how they’re supposed to be maintained …Who holds that person accountable for renting it,” he said.

That may change soon. LA City Council Member Mitch Englander has proposed a motion asking the city to step in.

“Do we ban them?” he said. “Do we make it criminal? Do we have rules and regulations? We’ve got to have the conversation,” he said, pointing out that sewage and fires are a problem. “They’re not safe,” he said.

Currently, LA doesn’t regulate the market for rental RVs — just where homeless people in cars can park. Part of Savala’s job is moving his fleet of trucks and RVs every 72 hours to avoid tickets. He said he does it while tenants are at work and then texts them with the new location.  

“I’m like, where did I park? What time is street sweeping?” he said.

Savala said he tries to be a responsible landlord and that he has fire extinguishers and smoke detectors in his rentals.

His fleet of mobile units may prove to be a wise investment. Los Angeles has an estimated shortage of 500,000 affordable rentals to meet current needs.

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