Today, ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Disability Rights Advocates, Legal Aid of Sonoma County, and California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. filed suit against the city of Sebastopol for enacting an ordinance that prohibits vehicles “used for human habitation” from parking anywhere within city limits during the day.
This action, aimed at driving the city’s most vulnerable residents out of town, follows a decades-long local and state failure to build affordable housing. Current listings for the smallest available apartments in Sebastopol approach an amount that is roughly equivalent to 100% of the monthly net income for a full-time worker making California’s minimum wage. As a result, many long-time Sebastopol residents have been priced out of fixed housing, even though they may need to remain in the city to be near their families, jobs, schools, healthcare providers, and support networks.
Unlike similar bans in other cities, the Sebastopol ordinance isn’t based on concerns about traffic safety or vehicle size. Instead, the ordinance explicitly targets vehicles “designed or altered for human habitation.” This allows police to enforce the ordinance in a discriminatory manner. 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.”
“Sebastopol has not only failed to provide notice or guidelines for the police to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement; the city has made it clear that it intends to enforce the ordinance only against people who have been the subject of complaints or whom the police deem ‘undesirable,’ while giving wealthier residents a pass. This is discrimination, plain and simple.” said Alicia Roman, Staff Attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance.
In addition to being discriminatory, Sebastopol's ordinance is uniquely punitive and enacts a “one strike, you’re out” policy that calls for confiscating and impounding people’s only means of shelter with the first citation. The threat of suddenly losing one’s shelter is immensely stressful to people already struggling to maintain stability in their lives. “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,” said Michael Deegan, a former resident of Sebastopol and one of the plaintiffs in the case. “As a result, I was forced to move to Santa Rosa where I have been assaulted by people and harassed by police. Sebastopol should overturn their RV Ban and find another solution that is more humane and reasonable.”
Sebastopol officials’ actions have made clear that they are more concerned with driving unhoused residents out of the city than providing meaningful solutions. In 2021, the city council passed a resolution declaring the existence of a “homeless emergency.” According to the council, the “emergency” was not the human tragedy of community members being forced to live in vehicles. Rather, it was that the existence of these vehicularly-housed residents was “impacting adjacent property owners, neighborhood [sic], businesses… and the general public.”
Illustrating this is the fact that Sebastopol provides almost no shelters for residents experiencing homelessness. Options are even more limited for unhoused Sebastopol residents with disabilities because the city has failed to provide accessible facilities. Many people who have lost their homes have only one alternative to sleeping unsheltered on the street: living in their vehicles.
“Sebastopol cannot continue to pass the buck on the regional housing crisis by pushing people living in their vehicles into neighboring communities. This approach is both cruel and counterproductive. To solve homelessness, Bay Area cities must work together to facilitate housing development and provide services and safe shelter to the unhoused,” said Justin O. Milligan, Homelessness Prevention Attorney at Legal Aid of Sonoma County.
“Sebastopol’s ordinance unlawfully attacks its most vulnerable residents–those who, because of economic circumstances and the City’s own policy failures, have been forced to seek shelter by living in vehicles. It is not permissible for a city to address the crisis of homelessness by attempting to force unhoused people out of town.” – William Freeman, Senior Counsel of the ACLU of Northern California
"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. 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.” – Thomas Zito, Supervising Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates