SEBASTOPOL, Calif. (KRON) — The City of Sebastopol is facing a lawsuit over a parking ordinance banning anyone from living in a vehicle parked within city limits.
“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 ACLU Foundation of Northern California wrote.
The ACLU, Disability Rights Advocates, Legal Aid of Sonoma County, and California Rural Legal Assistance filed the lawsuit this week in United States District Court Northern District.
Sebastopol’s ordinance was passed by city leaders to drive the “most vulnerable residents out of town,” according to the ACLU.
Unlike bans in other Bay Area cities, Sebastopol’s ordinance isn’t based on concerns about traffic safety or vehicle size, the lawsuit claims. Instead, the ordinance explicitly targets vehicles “designed or altered for human habitation.”
“This is discrimination, plain and simple,” said Alicia Roman, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance.
Another city in the San Francisco Bay Area, Oakland, has an ordinance for the same issue that takes a complete opposite approach. In Oakland, you can park your vehicle legally in any public parking space or public street, even when you are living in it. Oakland authorities can only tow the vehicle if it is deemed “abandoned” and no one is living in it.
Over the summer, Oakland residents voiced frustrations to KRON4 about vehicles that were parked and unmoved for months along their neighborhood’s streets.
Civil rights advocates say Sebastopol’s ordinance is especially punitive because it enacts a “one strike, you’re out” policy. Vehicles can be seized and impounded after just one citation.
Michael Deegan, a former resident of Sebastopol and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said, “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. As a result, I was forced to move to Santa Rosa where I have been assaulted.”
In 2021, the Sebastopol City Council passed a resolution declaring the existence of a “homeless emergency.” But in 2022, there are still very few homeless shelters.
The lawsuit states, “Like many cities in Northern California … Sebastopol has recently experienced a dramatic rise in the number of residents without fixed housing. Skyrocketing property values, rapidly rising rents, and a decades-long failure to invest in affordable housing have made housing unaffordable for far too many Sebastopol residents.”
Even the smallest apartments available for rent in Sebastopol are too pricey for someone working fulltime but earning a modest salary.
Justin Milligan, an attorney at Legal Aid of Sonoma County, said forcing locals experiencing homelessness out of the city is “cruel and counterproductive.”
“Sebastopol cannot continue to pass the buck on the regional housing crisis by pushing people living in their vehicles into neighboring communities,” Milligan said.
Sebastopol City Manager Larry McLaughlin said the ACLU’s statements and claims “mischaracterizes the nature and intent of the Sebastopol City Council’s decision to adopt Parking Ordinance 1136.”
“The City Council did not make this decision lightly or with the intent to ‘drive out’ the unhoused from Sebastopol,” McLaughlin wrote.
The City Council spent months and many public meetings discussing both the proposed parking ordinance and the larger issues of the unhoused in Sebastopol, McLaughlin said.
“The previous situation with unsafe, and unregulated continuous RV parking, especially on Morris Street, was untenable. The area was impacted by trash, sewage, human waste, and other public health and safety issues. Unfortunately, at least one of the residents living in an RV on Morris Street died there,” McLaughlin said.
The city hired a homeless outreach coordinator who met individually with each of the persons residing in RVs in the city to offer them services and assistance to obtain more secure housing.
The city also worked with its partner Sonoma Applied Village Services to establish the Horizon Shine Village. The Horizon Shine Village houses 20 RVS and about 30 people who were formerly living on the streets. “Every Sebastopol resident that was formerly living on Morris Street who wanted to move into the Village was either allowed to do so or was able to find more secure housing elsewhere,” McLaughlin wrote. “The city has also spent considerable effort and expense in defending the Horizon Shine Village from a lawsuit seeking to shut down the Village.”