The Only Way For Some People To Stay In San Francisco Is To Steal

Smith’s favorite thing about the city, he said, is the weather. While Stockton’s temperatures reach over 100 on summer days and below freezing on winter nights, San Francisco stays cool and breezy year-round — “the best climate of anywhere on the planet, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

He first tried to live in the city in 2006. After enrolling in culinary school, he moved into the dorms and worked part time as a cook.

“On the weekends when we got paid, we would pick a direction and hit up every bar and restaurant we came across,” he said. “It blew my mind. A big city with big city movement, fast-paced, and everybody had purpose and was driven and was going places. And there were all these little hidden gems all around. It’s amazing how much diversity there is in such a small area.”

After graduating, he moved into a friend’s apartment in Oakland and worked at a restaurant in San Francisco. The restaurant shut down a few years later, around the same time his grandma died, so he returned to Stockton to live with his mom.

With local zoning laws protecting the city’s natural beauty and property values, preventing buildings in most neighborhoods from rising more than 40 feet, San Francisco carries a finite housing supply. Did you know that the population of San Francisco — capital of the hippie influx and the tech boom — increased by just 100,000, or 13%, from 1950 to 2020? By comparison, New York City and San Diego grew by a million people, Houston and Los Angeles by around 2 million; Seattle has doubled in size; Phoenix has expanded tenfold. To see evidence of the Bay Area’s 21st-century expansion, you have to look to the surrounding municipalities, the sprawling subdivisions unfurled across Daly City, Gilroy, Dublin, San Jose, and the other suburbs catching the metropolitan spillover.

For Smith, the tech industry seemed to bring opportunities. In 2014, though he had a new job with a catering company in the South Bay, he signed up for Uber, which he saw as a way to get him back into the city. Nearly every day, he commuted in the mornings from Stockton to Foster City for his day job in catering, and then to San Francisco in the evenings to drive passengers around the city. Soon, he quit his job and did ride-hailing full time to simplify his schedule. Some nights, he didn’t want to leave the city, so he slept in his car, covering his windows with T-shirts and becoming adept at finding the dead-end streets where he could park his car without having to worry about anyone calling the police.

He looked into applying for a Section 8 housing voucher, which would cut his rental dues to 30% of his income, but the waitlist was long and processed through a lottery system. On his drives around the city, though, he began noticing more and more RVs parked all over the place, including a particularly dense cluster of around 20 mobile homes on a quiet stretch of road in the Bayview neighborhood.

By then, the Bayview had become an epicenter of resistance against the displacement sweeping across the city. Moving into the camp, Smith found a community of people committed to staying in the city, some holding tight to their San Francisco fantasy, others just trying to survive day to day.

“Everybody was looking out for everybody else,” he said. “Trying to carve out their own little niche without having to deal with the extremely high rent.”

When one neighbor said that he could no longer afford to take care of his dog, Smith adopted the pit bull, whom he named Doobie. Some nights, he’d park his mobile home in the nearby lot that used to serve Candlestick Park before the Niners moved to a new stadium in Santa Clara. The lot offered plenty of room for Doobie to run around. For years, Smith had no problem making ends meet.

Though the RV offered just 320 square feet, “it was very comfortable because it was mine,” he said.