A coalition of civil rights groups last week sued Sebastopol over a new parking law, which they argue was crafted to chase people living in vehicles out of the small city.
ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Disability Rights Advocates, California Rural Legal Assistance and Legal Aid of Sonoma County filed the lawsuit on behalf of four current and former Sebastopol residents and a local nonprofit, Sonoma County Acts of Kindness, which serves people experiencing homelessness.
Among other things, the group argues that the law, whether it is enforced or just used as a threat, violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Sebastopol does not have an adequate affordable housing alternatives to offer unhoused people and, instead of creating more options, is using a new law to push “undesirable” people living in vehicles out, according to the lawsuit.
“Sebastopol’s failure to provide adequate affordable housing for its residents has disproportionate risk for our clients and others like them, who are low-income people with disabilities, who have been forced into housing of last resort—their vehicles,” Thomas Zito, an attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “Living in an RV, car or trailer is often much safer for people with disabilities than congregate shelters or living in a tent. Sebastopol cannot solve its housing crisis by driving unhoused people with disabilities out of town.”
The city is defending the ordinance. In a statement sent to the press last week, Larry McLaughlin, the city attorney and city manager, said that the civil rights groups’ announcement of the lawsuit “mischaracterizes the nature and intent” of the parking ordinance.
McLaughlin states that the ordinance was passed in response to health and safety concerns on Morris Street and is not intended to “drive out” unhoused people. The statement also highlights the city’s recent efforts on homelessness, including establishing the Horizon Shine Village, a safe parking site with space for 20 residential vehicles, and paying legal bills to defend the village from a lawsuit brought by angry neighbors. In an interview, McLaughlin said the city hopes to extend the life of the village for another two years despite the potential of further legal challenges.
During the first two years of the pandemic, numerous vehicles used as homes were parked on Morris Street, bordering The Barlow shopping center on the edge of the city.
According to the lawsuit, in September 2021, police counted 32 vehicles parked on Morris Street. That December, they counted 43 vehicles being used for shelter around the city, more than twice the number of spaces available in Horizon Shine Village, which opened a few months later, in February.
But, facing mounting frustration from some city residents and business owners about the vehicles, the city took action early this year.
A month after the village opened, the city council passed the Recreational Vehicle Parking Ordinance, which makes it illegal to park any vehicle “designed or altered for human habitation for recreational, emergency, or other human occupancy” in a residential area or park at any time, or in a commercial area from 7:30am to 10pm. Vehicles found in violation are subject to “citation, towing or both.”
The lawsuit argues that the wording of the ordinance and public discussions at council meetings indicate that the city intends to selectively enforce the new law.
“Although the ordinance prohibits parking any vehicle in which a person could sleep, the city has made it clear that they intend to enforce the ordinance only against people who are living in their vehicles or are otherwise considered ‘undesirable,’” the coalition’s Oct. 25 legal complaint states.
For instance, at a January meeting described in the complaint, a council member asked the city’s police chief whether the ordinance could be used against a homeowner with “a VW van that they park in front of their house.” Not to worry, the chief responded, enforcement would be “complaint driven by the neighbors.”
In an interview, city manager McLaughlin told the Bohemian that he is “not aware” of police citing anyone under the parking law, since it was passed this March.
However, the lawsuit argues that the mere threat of using the ordinance, which allows the city to tow vehicles being used for shelter and storage of an individual’s personal property, was enough to make people move to other parts of the county. McLaughlin acknowledged that police had informed residents of the new law and that “theoretically” the remaining vehicles may have left because of the new punishments.
According to the lawsuit, Michael Deegan, one of the plaintiffs, moved his vehicle to Santa Rosa after Sebastopol passed the ordinance. Another plaintiff sold her vehicle because of the increased risk of towing.
“Instead of working with the homeless and providing a reasonable solution, Sebastopol came up with a draconian one, to ban homeless people living in their vehicles from the city,” Deegan said.
Long stereotyped as a hippy city, ahead of the pack on some environmental and progressive issues, Sebastopol is becoming increasingly out of reach for low- and moderate-income individuals. A recent report by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board found that the city’s 3,356 households have a median income of $101,911, paying an average of 35.9% of their income for housing. The median home price is nearly $1.1 million.
The county’s latest Point In Time Count, conducted this February, found that the number of unsheltered individuals in Sebastopol had dropped from 129 in February 2020, to just 40 in February 2022.