Attorneys for the ACLU of Northern California, Disability Rights Advocates and the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County allege the City of Pacifica, California’s use of municipal ordinances to prohibit indigent individuals from living in their vehicles is “cruel and unconstitutional” and has wreaked havoc on those unable to afford fixed housing in the San Francisco Bay Area locality.
The 44-page proposed class action lawsuit charges that the scenic coastal city, in the midst of a housing affordability crisis, “seeks to banish from public view” residents who are struggling financially and have no choice but to live in their cars, and treats vehicle dwellers as “human blight antithetical to its aesthetic.” At issue in the complaint are ordinances that, according to the suit, criminalized human habitation in vehicles and parking oversized vehicles, specifically RVs, on Pacifica streets.
“These ordinances punish individuals for nothing more than being poor and unable to afford fixed housing, adding additional devastating consequences to the lives of those who are already struggling,” the lawsuit claims.
Further, the lawsuit alleges Pacifica’s ban on RVs disproportionately harms those with disabilities both mental and physical, and that the city’s aggressive enforcement of the ordinances has come in a “haphazard, confusing, and inconsistent manner,” as many under the new rules find it impossible to understand where they can and cannot park.
Of the case’s five plaintiffs, the complaint states the individuals each have longstanding roots in Pacifica but “now face financial ruin, loss of all possessions and home, and even criminal penalties” if they choose to stay in, or even visit, the city, “all because the City has written them off as ‘blight.’” Like many who’ve been priced out of affordable housing but hope to still maintain shelter, dignity, privacy and safety, the plaintiffs, the case says, have turned to RVs for refuge, and the vehicles have been necessary for survival. Nevertheless, Pacifica has banned RVs from its streets and aims to keep RV dwellers from living within the city, deeming the vehicles and those who live inside their walls “an inconvenient and uncomfortable reminder of the economic inequality and poverty that affects an increasing number of Pacificans,” the lawsuit says.
The complaint claims Pacifica’s “disdain” for residents who live in vehicles and desire to hide them from public view is not new and has recently gotten worse. According to the case, Pacifica has for decades maintained a law that makes it illegal to sleep or be in a vehicle overnight. Those who violate the law, the suit says, are guilty of an infraction punishable by a fine of not more than $100 for a first conviction, $200 for a second conviction and $500 for a third. A fourth conviction for violating the city’s Human Habitation Ordinance amounts to a criminal misdemeanor, the lawsuit relays.
Pacifica has found, however, that the language of its Human Habitation Ordinance makes it difficult to expel the population of people who reside in their vehicles, the lawsuit says. Seeking a “more enforceable” means of doing so, Pacifica passed an ordinance in late 2019, “under the false guise of a traffic security act,” that modified an existing law to make the parameters for allowing an RV to be parked on city streets far narrower, according to the case. The ordinance also beefed up the fines violators could face, the suit says:
“The OSV Ordinance allowed temporary permits for RV parking, but only for people who maintained a fixed residence in the City, not those who rely on their RVs for shelter. A single violation of the OSV Ordinance is an infraction punishable by a fine of $100; a second violation is punishable by a fine of $200; and subsequent violations are punishable by fines of $500 each. Each separate day of unlawful parking constitutes a separate offense, and a violation beyond the third offense within a 12-month period is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $1,000 and imprisonment for up to 6 months.”
On September 15, 2020, Pacifica began “aggressively” enforcing the new ordinance and ticketing RVs throughout the city, with many accumulating costly tickets while attempting to figure out where they could park, according to the suit. As the lawsuit tells it, the ordinance, which reportedly netted more than $6,700 in RV tickets in its first month alone, had the effect desired by Pacifica:
“The mounting cost of tickets and threat of criminal punishment was enough to make many vehicularly housed Pacifica residents flee the City completely.”
For the plaintiffs and others similarly situated, life has been thrown into turmoil by the new ordinances, the complaint says. Per the lawsuit, the plaintiffs, despite their best efforts to comply with the law and park on streets supposedly not covered by Pacifica’s RV ban, continue to accumulate “financially devastating” tickets, and come closer to facing criminal charges or losing their homes entirely.
More from the complaint:
“The City of Pacifica’s blatant attempt to banish those who rely on RVs for housing and mobility violates the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution. The OSV Ordinance also has a particularly disproportionate burden on and discriminates against houseless people with disabilities who live in vehicles based on their disabilities, in violation of the antidiscrimination protections of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Plaintiffs have all been directly impacted and harmed by the City’s Human Habitation and OSV Ordinances. Each has been assessed expensive fines, which they do not have the ability to pay, and each believes that remaining in the City, or even returning to visit, will result in further indignities including unpayable fines and criminal penalties.”
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