The enforcement of rules governing how long people can live in recreational vehicles should be loosened to reflect today’s harsh economic reality, according to Tuolumne County (Calif.) Supervisor Paolo Maffei.

In other words, Maffei said, there are a lot of unemployed people on the verge of homelessness in the county, located 100 miles east of San Francisco in the state’s “Mother Lode” region. And if living in a friend’s or relative’s recreational vehicle or travel trailer keeps them off the streets, so be it, he said in a recent interview with The Union Democrat, Sonora.

Maffei’s urging comes at a time when the county’s unemployment rate is 12.7% and the nation’s rate is 10.2%. Maffei believes the county’s true unemployment rate is closer to 20%, if those who have lost their jobs but aren’t actively looking for work are counted.

In addition, the county is seeing its highest number of foreclosures in decades.

County rules now prohibit people from living in RVs on a particular piece of property for more than 14 days at a time. They can live in the vehicle longer, though, if it’s moved to other areas of the county.

The county rules have no bearing on RV parks, which are overseen by the state. Public lands, meanwhile, are managed by various federal agencies, which also impose time restrictions.

Maffei suggested suspending the time limit until the county emerges from the recession and the number of jobs increases. But, he said, a less-bureaucratic option is simply for regulators to look the other way.

“It’s a matter of instructing staff to use common sense,” Maffei said. “People don’t intentionally live in a trailer or RV through the winter. Give them a little leeway. Maybe it’s an adult child who’s lost his job, or a friend who’s lost his job. Show a little compassion.”

The reasoning behind the rule, according to the county’s chief building inspector, Doug Oliver, is to keep people, their children and the environment safe.

“The vehicles generally are not designed to exceed the occupancy loading,” Oliver said.

“With continuous use, they begin to deteriorate. There are structural safety, environmental and quality of life issues. You can have (animal) infestations that won’t go away.”

Oliver said he has seen cases where all of the above conditions came into play at once.

Oliver said his office has seen a steady amount of complaints regarding RVs over the years. He hasn’t noticed an increase since the local economy began reeling a little over a year ago, though.

He said Maffei’s idea is “worth looking into,” though, he added, “it would be an undertaking” to do it “safely without hurting the public.”

Maffei agreed with Oliver’s concern about sewage.

He said he’s heard stories where people have dumped the human waste from their RV’s storage tank into creeks. That shouldn’t be allowed, he said.

But if the county regulators are both diligent and compassionate, environmental rules can be enforced while letting people live in an RV in peace, according to Maffei.

“During the recession, we should help them rather than force them to live on the street or move somewhere in the forest,” he said.

“There are (homeless) camps. Traditionally, it’s been because of a lot of mental illness and drug abuse, but now it’s simply people who’ve lost their jobs and get foreclosed on. If at least a fraction can be housed in an RV, it just makes sense,” Maffei said.

Beetle Barbour, director of housing for the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, said there are indeed homeless people living in the woods just on the outskirts of Sonora.

Barbour said the true concern about RV dwellers might not be so much with those who are living in one of the vehicles on land owned by a family or friend — she doubts that those situations draw many complaints — but with homeless people living in RVs in the forest, with no family or friends able or willing to let them put the vehicle on their property.

Barbour agreed with Oliver’s concerns about code compliance, but, she said, considering the jobs that have been lost locally in recent months, “people are lucky to have an RV in this economy.”

Barbour has seen firsthand the need the Mother Lode has for low-income housing. And, she said, the need is growing.

“We’re off the charts,” she said of her office’s increasing workload. “Every day, we have 30 calls for housing assistance. We’ve never had this many requests for housing. We can’t help them all, but we’re trying.”

Oliver noted that when county code compliance officers come across a violation — related to the ordinance governing RVs or otherwise — they generally give the violator 45 days to comply with the rules.

“We’re pretty flexible — unless it’s an immediate safety hazard,” he said.