In Los Angeles, the homeless pay rent for RVs that offer shelter and little else

An entire network of "vanlords" exists with applicants eager to call the four walls on wheels home.

Thursday, June 1, 2023
In LA, the homeless pay rent for RVs that offer shelter, little else
The economy behind this business model is robust. An entire network of "vanlords" exists with applicants eager to call the four walls on wheels home.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- In the shadows of Mount Hollywood, next to studio lots and the Los Angeles River, sits one of the city's fastest growing neighborhoods.

Zoned for open space and commercial use, these days, Forest Lawn Drive is almost entirely residential.

"I became homeless during all the rain, so it was really, really rough," said Lorna, who lives with her dogs in a parked RV on Forest Lawn.

She moved there after what she described as the worst week of her life: sleeping on the streets during a winter storm after spiraling into homelessness. The bugs, she said, were the worst. A male friend shared a tent with her to help keep her safe.

On Forest Lawn, her RV is one of 70 along a two-mile-long corridor - 70 of an estimated 4,000 citywide.

"As areas get cleaned up, it just gets more and more concentrated in these industrial areas," said Tyler Stratton, who owns a business in an industrial part of Chatsworth.

He worries about safety every day.

"Not only safety for violence, necessarily, but as you're picking up trash with the fentanyl crisis as well, and drug use, that's also a prevalent thing," he said. "So you're also keeping that in the back of your mind, 'Am I touching anything that I could potentially get exposure to?'"

Before the pandemic, Stratton remembers seeing four RVs in the streets surrounding his business. Today, one street alone has more than 10.

In Chatsworth, on Forest Lawn and across Los Angeles, many of the RVs are rentals. People pay to live in them.

"I only pay $400 a month because it was a friend of a friend," said Lorna, who says she works full time as a home health aide. "You know, a lot of people pay a lot more than that."

"Vanlords," as L.A. City Councilmember Traci Park calls them, typically buy RVs at auction, then either drive or get them towed to their location of choice.

They're often parked illegally, are hooked up to rogue power systems, and are in the "Wild West" of rental agreements, with neither landlord nor tenant protections.

"A lot of times, the inhabitants of the vehicle don't know the name of the person who rented it from, they don't have valid contact information, a lot of these vehicles are not registered, they're not adequately insured," said Park during a conversation in front of an RV encampment in Venice.

Using the restroom isn't an option in the RVs. Some tenants use gyms, where they are members.

Others use their imaginations. Park said her office has received videos of people dumping waste into storm drains.

Yet the economy behind this business is robust. An entire network of "vanlords" exists with applicants eager to call the four walls on wheels home.

Greg William would know.

He has bought and rented out RVs to the unhoused for almost a decade.

In a conversation with ABC7, William says he owns 15 of them now, scattered around town, and charges between $600 to $800 a month.

"I work with them and I almost always do sliding scale, so basically whatever you can afford is what I work with you on," said William, who finds most tenants on Craigslist, Airbnb or through word of mouth.

He told ABC7 each RV costs between $2,000 to $5,000 upfront, and requires roughly $200 to $400 a month of maintenance. He estimates he profits between $2,000 and $8,000 a month.

The gap accounts for inconsistencies in rent payments, since the lease is not legally enforceable.

Above all, William sees himself at a homeless advocate, despite that he's also capitalizing on homelessness.

He tells ABC7 he was once unhoused.

"All it takes is a couple things in life to shoot you downwards. I would be there to help," said William. "So based on that principle alone, I feel like what I'm doing is the right thing to do."

Ethically, he's convinced.

Practically, it's not as simple.

"Businesses are regulated very stringently in the county of L.A., and it seems that would be something officials would jump onto pretty quick," said Stratton.

William says he's been through it all.

"I've been through all the tows. I've been in and out of court," he said.

Courts have ordered William to move his campers, which means they then pop up in a new location.

Enforcement otherwise is a dead end.

City Ordinance Section 41.18, which restricts camping in certain public right-of-ways, does not apply to RVs. Park says there's a moratorium on towing these types of RVs because of a pending lawsuit.

Even the threat of enforcing either gets divisive quickly, for fears of criminalizing homelessness.

So Park taking a different approach.

"We're working on changing our municipal code to cover the sale and leasing of RVs on our public streets," said Park.

If adopted, the ordinance would require RVs meet stricter standards before sale. It's in an early stage, set to appear before committee.

It would directly impact William's business, which he says he's fine with if that means ending homelessness.

As for Lorna, the city has offered her transitional housing. She turned it down before ending up in the RV on Forest Lawn.

Lorna is no longer looking for a place to live, because she no longer considers herself homeless.