It's (Still) Against The Law To Sleep In Your Car In LA

An RV in Los Angeles. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

If you're a little confused because you swear you've seen this headline before, breathe easy. You have. The Los Angeles City Council voted this week to ban people from sleeping in cars in most parts of the city — for the fourth time in three years.

The ordinance passed and signed into law on Tuesday reinstates a ban that had lapsed on July 1. It effectively outlaws vehicular "dwelling" in most parts of the city. Between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., a person is not allowed to "dwell" inside a vehicle parked in a residential area; nor are they allowed to ever "dwell" inside a vehicle parked within 500 feet of a park, licensed school, pre-school, or daycare facility.

Supporters of the ban say it's necessary to insure safety in the city's neighborhoods.

But at the meeting, councilmembers heard roughly an hour of public comment almost exclusively against reinstating the ban. Critics said the rule unduly punishes poor people with no alternative but to live in their vehicle.

"These things are so draconian," Miki Jackson, an advocate with the group Housing is a Human Right, told the council. "It is embarrassing to be a citizen of a city that is so heartless."

As soon as public comment ended, the 13 council members present approved the ordinance unanimously and without discussion.

Chants of "shame on you," erupted in the chambers shortly after. One woman was eventually arrested for refusing to leave.

The latest ban is effectively the same as the one passed by Los Angeles in November of 2016. It's actually designed to be more forgiving than a previous, citywide ban on vehicle dwelling that was shot down in 2014 by a federal court ruling.

The court had found the citywide ban unconstitutional because it was vaguely written and unequally enforced.

The late Judge Harry Pregerson wrote in his opinion: "arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is exactly what has occurred here. The law is broad enough to cover any driver in Los Angeles who eats food or transports personal belongings in his or her vehicle. Yet it appears to be applied only to the homeless."

That blanket ban was eventually repealed and replaced in 2016 with the updated version we have today.

WHERE CAN YOU LEGALLY SLEEP IN A VEHICLE IN L.A.?

The current law bans vehicle dwelling between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. on any residential street, defined as a street that "adjoins one or more single family or multi-family residentially zoned parcel."

Vehicle dwelling is prohibited at any time within 500 feet of a school, park, preschool, or daycare facility.

The law includes a definition of "dwelling":

Because it might be hard to figure out exactly which streets are affected, the Los Angeles Police Department publicized maps for every police precinct with a color-coded key. Red zones are off limits at all times, yellow zones are off limits at night, and green zones are, in theory, where it's okay to sleep overnight.

A color coded map of areas (in green) where it is legal to sleep in your vehicle. Nevertheless, there are often additional restrictions within those areas. (Los Angeles City Department of Planning)

But the maps aren't necessarily accurate because there are often other parking restrictions at play. Overnight bans, overnight street sweeping, oversize vehicle restrictions and colored curbs can further limit where someone living in their vehicle can legally park.

The result is that people living in vehicles are concentrated in industrial and commercial areas.

IS THE BAN ACTUALLY ENFORCED?

Not really. LAPD data shows police wrote 288 tickets since the ordinance first took effect in early 2017. During the first six months of 2019, cops wrote just 48 tickets.

The law is sporadically enforced largely because it's difficult to do so. For officers to write a ticket, they have to confirm that someone is actually inside. A person hidden inside a vehicle can simply refuse to open up.

A homeless man for over 30 years who lives inside his car repairs a bicycle as his dog Honey and neighbor's dog Niko stand guard in this Sept. 2015 photo. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Of course, it only takes the threat of enforcement (or impound) to prompt most to move their vehicle. (In the past, tow companies have also been reluctant to impound RVs and other vehicles that someone lives in, according to the Daily News.)

The fine for sleeping in your car in an off-limits zone starts at $25 for first-time offenders. That increases to $50 the second time, and $75 after that.

WHY DOES THE CITY KEEP RENEWING THE BAN?

Including its reinstatement this week, L.A.'s vehicle dwelling ordinance has been re-upped by the City Council four times. The first version, which passed in November of 2016, had a "sunset" or expiration date of July 1, 2018.

On June 27, 2018, the council voted to extend the ban until January 1, 2019. On December 12, 2018, it was extended again until July 1, 2019. The ban lapsed for a month while council members were on vacation. This week's vote extends the ban to January 1, 2020. Whew.

The latest motion to extend the ban said it was necessary because the council needs time to fully reassess the policy and potential improvements, "including establishing incentives for communities to embrace safe parking in their neighborhoods."

It's the same explanation used to justify previous extensions. By now, multiple city departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, have already concluded that the city should expand its safe parking program.

WHAT IS SAFE PARKING?

L.A.'s "safe parking" program is a network of lots where people living in their vehicles are allowed to legally park and access things like bathrooms and other public services. But there aren't nearly enough of them.

According to the most recent homeless count, at least 9,500 people live in a vehicle in the City of Los Angeles. By contrast, the local safe parking program currently offers spots for approximately 200 vehicles, with plans to expand to about 300 spaces by the end of the year.

The biggest barrier to expanding the program, however, is finding locations to put safe parking lots. Also, money. Safe parking typically requires costly staffing and insurance.

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