The Great Recession hit my parents hard. In 2009, my parents’ mortgage was underwater, despite their having lived in their house in Minnesota for nearly a decade. Their only choice was to walk away, so they decided to move back to the Bay Area, where they had both gone to graduate school.
They were lucky enough to find a reasonably affordable two-bedroom apartment in Mountain View, where they spent a few years getting back on their feet financially.
When the Mountain View City Council passed a ban on parking recreational vehicles in the vast majority of the city, I was shocked, disappointed and a little angry. This was the city where my parents had found refuge from financial trouble. It is a community so strong that my family still keeps in touch with friends there many years after we left. It is not a city where people turn their backs on struggling neighbors.
But many Mountain View residents are struggling. The dramatic rise in homelessness and vehicle dwelling in Mountain View illustrates the housing crisis gripping the region. For decades, our leaders have blocked higher-density development, land-use reform and other housing solutions in the name of “protecting the character of our communities.” These shortsighted policy choices caused a massive increase in housing costs that forced out many residents and prevented young people from buying in. Those who had to remain, for family reasons or work, were forced to take up shelter in RVs. In short, vehicle dwellers are the inevitable result of 40 years of anti-housing policies.
Rather than address the root cause of these problems (the housing crisis), RV bans attack the victims. They treat vehicle dwellers as an aesthetic problem, as if struggling residents are just eyesores to be removed. They don’t solve the problem; they simply sweep it (and struggling residents) across the city line.
RV bans exacerbate the real problem. According to a study by the National Law Center for Homelessness & Poverty, bans on vehicle dwelling that carry fines, impounding of vehicles or jail time take away what few resources these vulnerable residents have left, forcing them further into poverty and homelessness.
RV bans aren’t just problematic public policy, they also rest on shaky legal ground. In 2014, the U.S. Appeals Court for the 9th Circuit struck down a Los Angeles ban on vehicle dwelling as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. The court reasoned that the law’s vague language invited arbitrary enforcement and discrimination against the homeless. Then, in 2019, the 9th Circuit struck down a ban on sleeping on the streets when the city had failed to provide enough beds for the homeless.
These cases raise serious questions about whether RV bans, such as the one in Mountain View, are permissible at all. The 9th Circuit’s 2014 opinion makes clear that laws targeting the poor and homeless, such as RV bans, can’t be arbitrary or invite arbitrary enforcement. That’s a tall order. The 9th Circuit probably won’t be convinced that a city’s aesthetic concerns justify laws targeting the poor. However, even if that argument works, the city will still have to invest considerable resources into enforcement to avoid accusations of arbitrary enforcement — money that could probably be better spent on other city priorities.
The 9th Circuit’s 2019 case also creates a clear choice: If a city wants to ban people from sleeping on the street (or vehicle dwelling), it needs to provide a bed for them. Cities like San Jose may be safe from these decisions, but as the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley points out, Mountain View, which has yet to build enough shelters for its homeless residents, may not.
Thanks in part to the efforts of the Mountain View Housing Justice Coalition, the Mountain View RV ban is now subject to a referendum on the November ballot. On Jan. 14, the Mountain View City Council must decide whether to repeal the ban or allow the referendum to appear on the ballot.
The City Council should repeal the ban. It is bad public policy and probably unconstitutional. If the City Council still wants to take that risk, then the law requires that it, at least, postpone the ban’s implementation until the city meets the legal requirement of providing sufficient beds for its homeless population.
If the City Council is unwilling to repeal the law, Mountain View residents should vote against it at the ballot box. Don’t turn your backs on your struggling neighbors. Don’t waste your tax dollars going after them. Let’s focus on solving real problems facing our communities, like the housing crisis that is causing this problem in the first place.
Michael Vargas is a business and securities lawyer and a part-time professor at Santa Clara University Law School. Vargas also chairs the American Bar Association’s committee on Business Law Education and serves on the executive board of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, and on the boards of BAYMEC and the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce.