After a year of litigation, ten Berkeley residents who live in vehicles have won a settlement from the city. The settlement makes two small but significant changes to Berkeley’s municipal code, both of which have the potential to improve quality of life for people who live in vehicles. This win is part of a larger wave of unhoused people across California using the courts to defend the rights of unhoused people—a trend cited in an ACLU report last year titled Outside the Law: The Legal War Against Unhoused People. In Berkeley, after a huge crackdown by the city against residents living in their vehicles, ten individuals from the Berkeley Friends on Wheels community chose to fight back with a lawsuit. The group did not have a lawyer—with some volunteer legal support, they studied up and represented themselves in court.
In the weeks leading up to a sweep planned for September 30, 2021, city outreach workers routinely warned residents that Berkeley would soon begin enforcing all applicable laws. The parking regulations in Berkeley, as we have written about before, make it almost impossible to live in a vehicle. While there was enforcement of these ordinances, it had slowed with the start of COVID-19. By September 2021, officials were ready to crack down again despite the fact that pandemic conditions continued. Under threat of having their homes towed, ten unhoused neighbors, residents of the Friends on Wheels vehicle community, filed a lawsuit against the City of Berkeley. The lawsuit cited constitutional rights violations, and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, among others.
After a year of litigation, the ten plaintiffs of the Friends on Wheels lawsuit won a settlement with the City of Berkeley. While not all their demands were met, the lawsuit did effectively put a pause on vehicle evictions for over six months while the city was publicly challenged in court. Each plaintiff was afforded $1,500 to be used for vehicle-home repairs and registration. The eventual settlement also included changes to the Berkeley Municipal Code. Through a carefully written and powerfully argued case, in addition to mountains of collected documents and testimony, the Friends on Wheels case made legislative change, and moved the needle slightly away from anti-homeless policy.
There were two changes to the Berkeley Municipal Code (BMC), one of which was to repeal Chapter 12.76, or “House Cars.” It stated that “No person shall use or occupy or permit the use or occupancy of any house car or camper for human habitation within the City” for more than three days in a 90-day period (BMC 12.76.020). While people were rarely cited for it, it could be enforced at any time. It was also vaguely written, meaning enforcement of the ban was historically selective, targeting poor and unhoused residents in Berkeley.
The plaintiffs also earned a huge win with the amendments made to BMC 14.40.120, the Oversized Vehicle (OSV) Overnight Ban. This ordinance banned the parking of oversized vehicles between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. The ordinance was actually amended in 2019 to explicitly include RVs and campers even though they are not classified as commercial oversized vehicles. This amendment attempted to redefine the definition of an OSV and, as the plaintiffs argued, “a local statute cannot define commercial vehicles as this is a matter of California law. The City regulates the movement of vehicles, but it cannot alter its statutory definition.” The City of Berkeley should never have been able to alter the OSV definition. Because of this lawsuit, Berkeley has been held accountable.
Why do these wins matter? When people living on the street are evicted from their spot and have their belongings dumpstered, they do not often have a chance to respond, to have their complaints heard, to hold the city government responsible. It is incredibly hard to find lawyers to take up a case. Filing all the necessary paperwork for a lawsuit when your rights have been violated requires transportation, funds, access to computer and internet, and lots of time, among other things. This makes it incredibly easy for city governments to get away with violating the rights of unhoused people without any accountability or repercussions.
None of the plaintiffs have yet received the $1,500 vehicle repair and registration stipend. Nor have any of the plaintiffs yet received coordinated entry assessment or reassessment as was agreed upon in the settlement. Additionally, the harassment of the Friends on Wheels community, including more residents than just the ten plaintiffs of the case, continues with additional four-hour parking signs posted on nearly every block in the area.
On Tuesday October 4, in the early morning, four vehicles were towed as part of a larger effort by the city to purportedly “clean” the area. What ensued was an eviction of many of the residents living in tents along Eighth Street, north of Harrison Street. Two vehicle homes and two vehicles used for transportation to work were impounded. In the following days, as residents attempted to retrieve their vehicles, they were told by the tow yard that their vehicles, with their belongings still inside, had been destroyed as part of the agreement with the city.
Unfortunately, the gains achieved from the recent settlement have not fundamentally changed the anti-houseless practices of the City of Berkeley and its Homeless Response Team.
Get active. Be aware. Refuse to be abused.
Berkeley Copwatch is an all-volunteer organization with the goal to reduce police violence through direct observation and holding police accountable for their actions. Formed in 1990, they seek to educate the public about their rights, police conduct in the Berkeley community and issues related to the role of police in our society at large. For more information visit www.berkeleycopwatch.org.