The Seattle City Council should help Mayor Jenny Durkan crack down on “RV ranchers.”
It is past time to halt the shadowy market of “landlords” renting decrepit vehicles to vulnerable homeless residents, as detailed recently by Times Project Homeless reporter Vianna Davila.
Last year, 60 vehicles the city removed because they were health and safety risks were bought at auction, returned to the streets and rented out again. That’s like charging people to eat scraps from a trash can.
Durkan is showing leadership and willingness to fix this problem. In June she specified criteria for police and city agencies to identify vehicles that must be junked.
She also proposed legislation prohibiting rental of “extensively damaged” vehicles for occupancy. It called for penalties starting at $250 plus restitution payments, up to $2,000, that “RV ranchers” would have to pay “tenants” to reimburse them and help with relocation.
Council members should scrutinize the mayor’s proposal. Forcing payouts to renters is debatable. Seattle could also simply enforce local and state laws regarding junk vehicles. It should take advantage of a new state program taxing RV licenses to fund disposal of junk RVs proliferating statewide.
But rather than constructively improving Durkan’s proposal, or seeking to fix the problem with existing regulations, the council last month was deeply skeptical. As if to one-up the most dubious element of Durkan’s plan, it appropriated $100,000 to help RV occupants obtain other housing.
More dollars are not the solution. Seattle’s already spending more than $90 million a year on homeless services and housing, plus a $290 million housing levy approved in 2016. Displaced people are eligible for services whether they’re in tents or RVs.
What’s needed is more backbone, to make hard decisions preventing anyone from living in squalor. This council prides itself on tenant protections, continually seeking to regulate apartment landlords, yet waffles about cracking down on those renting rat-infested RVs to vulnerable people.
The council’s resistance endorses the practice of occupying junkers unfit for habitation. That’s misplaced compassion. Some of these RVs are so bad, animal-control officers impound dogs from them. But humans are left in filth and sometimes die in recurring RV fires.
It would be different if rotten hulks were the only shelter available. But official shelter space has been available through the current debate, so it’s not a question of throwing people onto the street.
Nor does this solve the broader challenge of people living in their vehicles. A car may be someone’s only place to sleep and store possessions, particularly during a brief episode of homelessness. Some opt to live in vehicles rather than shelters or even apartments. A compassionate, multifaceted response is warranted, such as Seattle’s provision of social services when cleaning encampments with vehicles.
Across King County, an estimated 2,147 people were living in vehicles during this year’s point-in-time count. That’s 19% of the county’s homeless population; 53% were in shelters or sanctioned encampments and 31% were found outside, in unsanctioned encampments or abandoned buildings.
Seattle’s leadership failed over many years to address this issue. Inconsistent policy and squishy enforcement protocols led to serious problems, including exploitation, inhumane conditions and some RVs becoming mobile drug dealerships.
Better solutions for homeless vehicle occupants must be a priority for the new regional homelessness entity. So far the best local models are churches providing parking areas with services, such as access to kitchen and laundry facilities. Municipalities should also cooperate on “ranching” enforcement, so the problem doesn’t simply migrate to the most lenient jurisdiction.
In the meantime, Seattle should immediately halt rentals of dangerous, unhealthy, barely-mobile junk RVs.