A coalition of legal advocacy groups have filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city of Mountain View to block an ordinance that bans RVs and trailers from being parked on most city streets, calling it an attempt to oust homeless people living in vehicles.
The legal challenge, spearheaded by the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and Disability Rights Advocates, comes right as Mountain View was slated to begin enforcement of the so-called "narrow streets" ordinance. Under the law, oversized vehicles like RVs would be prohibited from parking on streets that are 40 feet wide or less -- about 83% of all streets in the city.
While the ordinance is written as a traffic safety measure, the coalition argues that the real intent behind the law is to prohibit homeless people from living in their vehicles on public roadways. Surveys have shown upward of 250 vehicles in Mountain View are inhabited, and that many people rely on cars and RVs for shelter. Once the "no parking" signs are installed, those living in oversized vehicles will be required to move or face having their vehicle towed.
"This ban punishes people for being too poor to afford permanent housing and attempts to expel them from the city of Mountain View," said Sam Diamant, an attorney with the firm King & Spalding, at a Wednesday press conference. "The city of Mountain View's attempt to banish RV residents is both unconstitutional and morally wrong."
Among those at risk of displacement are Celerina Navarro, a 19-year Mountain View resident currently living in an RV. A plaintiff in the case, Navarro said an unaffordable rent increase pushed her onto the streets six years ago, forcing her to instead live in a vehicle. Every day she lives in fear that her RV will be towed, and that she and her school-age children will be ousted from the city.
"Mountain View is my city too, I have a community here, my children go to school here and I receive medical care in the area," Navarro said through a translator. "Instead of kicking us out because we're poor, I want the city to provide permanent affordable housing options for myself and all Mountain View residents."
The City Council approved the narrow streets ordinance in 2019, but it was swiftly subject to a voter referendum. The ordinance appeared on the November 2020 ballot as Measure C, where it passed with nearly 57% of the vote. In the lead-up to the measure, it was clear that people on both sides of the issue acknowledged the RV ban was really about homelessness -- not traffic safety.
Attempts to overtly ban living in vehicles, including a similar 2013 effort by the city of Palo Alto, have been subject to legal challenge. A 2014 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit struck down a law in Los Angeles that tried to prevent the use of vehicles as living quarters, which was found to be unconstitutional and invited discriminatory enforcement against the homeless.
Legal advocates said Mountain View's law is particularly tough on those with disabilities, and that many of these people live in RVs to stay close to family, local resources and health care. Many are living in RVs because they lost access to affordable housing and cannot afford the high cost of living in the area.
Janet Stevens, a 63-year-old Mountain View resident and plaintiff in the case, has chronic fatigue syndrome, high blood pressure and is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, according to the suit. Her treatment requires her to go to Sutter Health's Mountain View Center, where she goes for support for her chronic fatigue and for emergency care when her blood pressure becomes irregular.
"As a result of her numerous disabilities, Stevens is unable to work and receives Social Security Disability Income," according to the suit. "Because she cannot afford market-rate housing and temporary housing shelters near the medical center do not exist, her only option is to live in an RV near the facility."
Civil rights attorneys have previously warned that they would take legal action against the city for parking prohibitions aimed at ousting homeless people from city streets. The suit filed Wednesday repeats many of the same arguments against unlawful targeting of the homeless.
The lawsuit, which can be viewed here, seeks to wipe out both the narrow streets ordinance as well as a similar ordinance banning large vehicles from being parked on streets with bike lanes. It alleges that the parking prohibitions sought to target vulnerable residents who have been forced to seek shelter in RVs in order to remain in the high-cost city, violating their inalienable rights and burdening them with excessive fines and fees.
It also alleges that the pair of laws amount to unlawful seizure of property by towing and a violation of Fourteenth Amendment rights to freedom of movement, along with a violation of right to privacy under the California Constitution.
Michael Trujillo, a staff attorney with the Law Foundation, urged the city not to ticket or tow any inhabited RV parked in a way that does not create an immediate safety concern. He said the law is both unconstitutional and inhumane, and that the nearly $1 million slated for rolling out the parking ban should be reinvested in affordable housing instead of chasing people out of the city.
"Everyone should have the opportunity to live and feel safe in their community regardless of income level," he said. "RVs provide stability and shelter for people and families who otherwise would be homeless or displaced from the community."
Mountain View city officials say they are still evaluating the lawsuit, and said in a statement that oversized vehicles on narrow roadways can encroach on traffic lanes. This can increase the risk of a collision for both cars and bicyclists, and can hinder emergency vehicles navigating traffic.