San Diego Homeless RV Owners’ Class Action Survives First Test

SAN DIEGO (CN) — A federal judge in San Diego on Friday refused to dismiss a class action from disabled homeless people who challenged city laws that prohibit them from living in their RVs or parking them overnight on the street.

U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia refused the city‘s request to dismiss the November 2017 lawsuit on behalf of an estimated class of 800 who say vehicle codes which appear to be “facially neutral” discriminate against disabled San Diegans with nowhere to go.

“Living with yearly record-breaking rent increases seems to be par for the course in San Diego — part of the so-called ‘Sunshine Tax,’” Battaglia wrote in an 8-page order.

“Plaintiffs in this case, disabled and homeless individuals, are amongst those hit the hardest by the Sunshine Tax. Unable to work and living off of government assistance, plaintiffs took refuge from the streets in their RVs; a risky endeavor as two San Diego Municipal Codes make it unlawful.”

The average rent in San Diego is $2,043 a month for an average-size apartment, which is 827 square feet, according to the recently updated RentCafé website: $24,500 a year, without utilities.

The class claims two vehicle codes, one which outlaws parking RVS on city streets between 2 and 6 a.m., and one which makes it illegal to live in one’s vehicle, place a “disproportionate burden on disabled people,” in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

In their original lawsuit, class members requested a “reasonable modification” from the city, allowing homeless RV owners to use empty parking lots at night in nonresidential neighborhoods. But the City Council took no action and continued to ticket homeless RV owners.

Oddly, the city opened “safe park” overnight lots for homeless people living in vehicles, but excluded RVs.

In its dismissal motion, the city claimed that its laws are neutral and do not discriminate on the basis of disability, and so do not violate the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.

But Battaglia said the city’s argument misses the disproportionate burden claims that a “facially neutral” policy or program can be found to violate the ADA if it disproportionately affects disabled people.

The class cited three ways in which they are disproportionately burdened by San Diego’s municipal code:

They cannot stay at the city’s homeless shelters, which cannot accommodate their disabilities;

Pre-existing conditions make them more vulnerable to unsheltered homelessness if their RVs are impounded;

and they have no access to permanent housing as their disabilities prevent them from working, and they live on fixed incomes through government assistance.

Battaglia found the complaint “plausibly alleges that disabled, homeless plaintiffs are disproportionately burdened by the ordinances.”

“While the city does raise credible issues as to the complaint’s focus on homelessness as the discerning factor here rather than plaintiffs’ disabilities, the complaint addresses these deficiencies,” Battaglia wrote.

Disability Rights attorney Ann Menasche said in an interview that the judge understood that even a facially neutral ordinance which does not intend to discriminate can be found to do so if it disproportionately affects disabled people.

“You don’t have to have intent to have discrimination,” Menasche said. “People with disabilities are being harmed by the city because they have disabilities.”

Menasche said the city is continuing to ticket and impound homeless owners’ RVs.

A hearing on a motion for preliminary injunction is set for July 26.

The City Attorney’s Office said in a statement: “As the court noted in its ruling, ‘Whether the city’s two ordinances actually discriminate based on disability is the topic for another type of motion or perhaps trial. The court’s only role here is to assess the complaint’s sufficiency.’ The substantive issues raised by plaintiffs in their complaint will addressed through the litigation process.”

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