Rob looked around for something workable. A few dozen RV’s sat in the police impound lot, packed in so tight he had to slide sideways between vehicles to peer in the windows and check the undersides.
“A lot of junk,” he said. “Though somebody would probably love this junk.”
After all, it’s clear someone was living in each of these RV’s before it was towed. Clothes, blankets, and trinkets were scattered on the floors.
“I found one with the fridge still cold, there was food in it,” Rob said.
As homelessness has risen in Los Angeles, there are more and more of these barely working vehicles sitting on streets around the county, providing a semblance of shelter for thousands of men, women, and families. When those inhabitants rack up unpaid parking tickets, their vehicles end up on this tow lot in Wilmington. If they’re not claimed, they go up for auction.
And that’s where Rob comes in.
Spotting a relatively nice RV — smashed in back bumper, but clean and with no visible plumbing issues— he pulled himself in through the window and looked around.
“Now something like this, I would go for,” he said.
Rob would buy an RV like this for anywhere from $200 to $1,000. When he makes a purchase, he tows them out of the yard, plants them in South L.A., scrubs the insides with bleach, and then rents them out to homeless people.
“Usually, [for] like ten dollars a day,” he said. “Anyone can get ten dollars a day. Pump gas, sit outside the liquor store.”
Rob spoke to KPCC on the condition we not use his real name, as he could lose his job at a tow truck company. He’s just one link in the chain of a sub-economy that’s cropped up around the homeless ecosystem in Los Angeles.
Once Rob rents out a motorhome, he gives his tenant the cell phone number of a man who works for a porta-potty company and makes side money emptying out the septic tanks of RV’s full of homeless people.
Some car washes and construction sites around the county have allowed homeless people to park on their lots in exchange for keeping an eye on things overnight.
And rentals like Rob's are available in the San Fernando Valley, Southeast L.A., and even the urban core.
In Rob’s case, he said, he uses the money he makes to pay his rent on a $1,000 per month one-bedroom apartment in South L.A. that he shares with his girlfriend and two young kids. After a few months of renting, he gives his tenant the option to buy the RV for a few hundred dollars.
“It’s usually rent-to-own,” he said
Rob got the idea when he was homeless himself, living first in a car then and RV. When his girlfriend got pregnant, they decided to find an apartment. An acquaintance asked if she could take over the RV. Then, a family parked in front of her asked if Rob could get them an RV, too.
Now, he has seven RV’s, all rented out, and is looking for more.
Directly in front of the RV Rob had his eye on was a far different specimen of the streets — a motorhome, towed in from somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, that had been burnt down to its blackened frame.
The tow lot’s manager, Bertha Maldonado, of Pepe's Los Angeles Tow, said that’s not unusual.
“It’s about two or three a month burned like that,” she said.
Last week, a middle aged man and woman who collect recyclables in the Cheviot Hills saw the RV they lived in go up in flames. According to the L.A. Fire Department, the man, who ran inside to try to save the couple’s two dogs, instead died alongside his pets.
Up near Chatsworth, LAPD Officer Charles Sean Dinse said he was recently dropping his kids off at school when he saw smoke.
“I had a sneaking suspicion when I saw it that it was going to be an RV on fire,” Dinse said. When he got to the scene, the fire department was there and the flames, started by a candle the inhabitant was using for lighting, were out. So he tried to comfort the woman, who had been renting the RV from a man living in the trailer park across the street. He helped the woman find a spot in a shelter. And tried to talk to the owner of the RV, but there wasn’t much he could do.
Dinse’s not a fan of the vehicular home rental market.
“Because I don’t think there’s a code when it comes to how they’re supposed to be maintained,” he said. “Whether they’re supposed to have running water, electricity – just like a house that would prevent like a slumlord from taking advantage of the system and renting out an RV that was in poor condition that’s leaking fluid and dumping their gray water all over the place.”
There’s no one, he said, to hold them accountable.
Melody Groundflyer said she had a good feeling about her landlord, Russel, when she decided to rent one of his box trucks, parked in Silver Lake.
“I trusted him immediately,” she said. “He’s one of those good hippy people, I guess.”
Groundflyer moved to L.A. from the Antelope Valley for a job as a cable technician. She makes decent money — around $45,000 a year — but she was having trouble putting away any savings. When her roommates moved out and it was time to look for a new place, she happened upon listing for RV rentals on Craigslist. Now, she pays $500 a month for a box truck that’s usually parked in Echo Park or Silver Lake — walking distance to music venues, restaurants, and everything Groundflyer needs.
“I mean, I don’t plan on doing it forever, but for now it’s kind of exciting and fun,” she said.
Her landlord, Russel, provided a fire extinguisher, solar panel for electricity, and basic furnishings. Groundflyer has a camping stove and toilet. In the heat of summer, she improvised an air conditioner out of a fan, bucket, and dry ice.
Russel has a few other RVs and vans he rents out on the neighborhood.
Box trucks go for $500 a month, RV’s for $1,000 a month. At the moment, he said, he has a man paying $200 a week for a bunk in an RV and hopes to rent the other bunk to a compatible roommate.
“Which is insane, honestly,” he said. “But you don’t have a contract, you don’t have a deposit or anything. So it works for some people.”
Russel got into the business when he was struggling to pay his own rent, $1,000 a month for a bachelor studio with no kitchen in Echo Park. At one point, he had five roommates and two dogs stuffed inside.
Seeing what demand there was for basically any kind of roof, he got a job at a grocery store and saved up for a box truck to rent out.
"I feel weird doing this, because for one, I’m broke, so I can understand how hard it is to pay rent,” he said. “I know this is insane, but some people can pay it and do pay it.”
And he said, he’s often the only option for his tenants. If they weren’t in RV’s and vans, they’d likely be on the street.