Gene Minetti has long been known to Seattle city officials for collecting two things in droves: vehicles and parking tickets.

The city filed a case against him in 2008 after he failed to pay more than $26,000 in parking fines on some of the roughly 200 vehicles across Washington that he owned, and sometimes lived in.

Yet today, Minetti is still living in vehicles and racking up parking tickets he never pays. He owed Seattle more than $17,400 as of July, making him one of the city’s biggest parking-ticket scofflaws, although he says he’s down to three or four vehicles.

Vehicular homelessness in Seattle has soared in the intervening decade. While many of the vehicles on city streets are occupied by a single person or family, Minetti has long been a purveyor of a different kind of system: He has maintained a rotating cache of vehicles parked across the city, cars and trucks that are often dilapidated and unoccupied — except for himself — and that he uses as storage.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

But Minetti does not live the life of a kingpin, at least not by the looks of things. Now 74, he most recently lived in a Dodge van parked in Ballard. It is so crammed with things that sometimes he doesn’t even have room to sleep inside, he said.

“I’m surviving,” he said in a recent interview, “and I’m acting as reasonably as I can.”

Advertising

But he, and a handful of others, could now find themselves in the city’s crosshairs. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, under pressure to address visible homelessness and the needs of people living in vehicles, recently proposed a crackdown on people who rent dilapidated vehicles out as homeless housing.

Though Minetti says he has never rented to anyone, he’s occasionally allowed friends to stay in his vehicles.  That means he could still be fined and charged as a predatory landlord under the mayor’s proposed legislation.

Inside the underground market of renting RVs to homeless people

Minetti doesn’t see he’s guilty of anything beyond defying parking rules he considers arbitrary. Because of his vehicles, he doesn’t even consider himself homeless.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Minetti sat beside the van in a black office chair, wearing a straw hat and pink and lime-colored reading glasses. On the ground next to him was a large collection of plastic cups that he uses to collect water. An empty juice bottle held a bunch of bright, yellow mums that he picked up at a nearby soup kitchen.

“What am I hurting?” Minetti said. “My living in a van isn’t forcing anybody out of their house.”

Seizing his “sole assets”

In an attempt to reclaim the thousands of dollars Minetti owed, the city of Seattle took the unusual step of executing a judgment against him in 2008 and seizing some of his vehicles.

Advertising

By then, he had been living in vehicles close to 20 years. Sometime after losing a job as a longshoreman, he “freed” himself “from rent by buying a Winnebago Motorhome,” he wrote in court documents. He survived by buying goods in thrift stores and selling them at a profit. Vehicles were a convenient means of storing all those goods.

As he collected vehicles, he collected tickets, and he was quick to challenge them in court. His list of municipal court cases in the last 14 years numbers in the hundreds, although he has paid only about $4,200 in fines.

The caseload “breaks the internet,” said Kirk Davis, a former Seattle assistant city attorney who worked on Minetti’s case.

Minetti, however, is notoriously litigious; in an interview with The Seattle Times, he repeatedly mentioned plans to sue the city. He has accused court and sheriff’s officials, as well as Seattle’s towing contractor Lincoln Towing, of harassment. Lincoln banned him from its property.

But the city felt a need to address the concerns of neighborhood residents affected by his vehicles, Davis said.

“I understand these folks are stuck in a very hard position with minimal means of support,” Davis said, referring to vehicle residents. “But it’s also very intrusive upon the neighborhoods where these folks do this.”

Normally, unpaid parking tickets go to collections, which are handled by Seattle Municipal Court. It’s very rare for the city attorney ‘s office to collect on such cases.

With Minetti, the City Attorney’s Office consolidated his parking tickets and certified the case in King County Superior Court, to seize some of his vehicles to satisfy that judgment. Minetti challenged the case, describing the vehicles in court records as his “sole assets.” Seizure of them meant he had to sleep in a park or else in the bucket seats of a small Mazda.

A collection of followers

As Minetti collected vehicles, he also built up a cadre of followers.

“He had four or five other people who were just hanging on every word” in court, Davis said.

His connections become clear in court documents from the last three years. He admits to “steering” friends to his “good running vehicles” at Lincoln Towing auctions, after they had been impounded. And he said he paid a man named Daniel Quinlan, whom he met while working as a longshoreman, to maintain vehicles “as are required to house Minetti” for $300 a month.

Minetti called on Quinlan, and another man named Holton Miller, another parking scofflaw, to testify in some of his parking-infraction cases, although Minetti emphasized he and Miller are not friends.

Advertising

As of July, Miller was first on the city’s list of outstanding parking debtors, owing $24,423.68.

Both he and Minetti appear to be the only two people on the city’s list of top scofflaws with an inordinate number of vehicles: 62 license-plate numbers were associated with Miller’s outstanding parking tickets, and 53 were associated with Minetti’s, according to Seattle Municipal Court. None of the other eight top parking debtors had more than five.

Gene Minetti’s Dodge van is packed full with his stuff. 
His vehicles were usually purchased at auctions.
(Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Gene Minetti’s Dodge van is packed full with his stuff. His vehicles were usually purchased at auctions. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

“I can’t make up my mind (about which vehicle I want),” Miller said in a recent interview, when asked why he had so many. He was standing near a blue truck parked in the Interbay neighborhood. His criminal history includes convictions for theft, criminal trespass and assault.

Like Minetti, Miller lives in one of his vehicles and uses his many others for storage, including for his large supply of wooden pallets. Recently, one of his vehicles was parked in Ballard, the back filled with tires. Across the street was another vehicle, stuffed with objects. It was registered to Quinlan.

Hoarding or another way to live? 

To people on the outside, this kind of behavior can look like hoarding. Hoarding is common among people who have lost social connections and experienced trauma — threads frequently interwoven in the lives of many homeless people.

But what may look like hoarding could also be the result of cramming everything you own into a small space, said Graham Pruss, an expert in vehicle residency who teaches at the University of Washington.

Advertising

“Think about all the various stuff we have in the average American’s garage … and you now combine all of that into a sedan,” Pruss said.

People use various vehicles like the rooms of a house: One is a living room, one is a workshop. The vehicles become a way of developing “different private spaces within these public spaces,” Pruss said.

And while Minetti and his associates may represent extreme behavior, Pruss said they also serve as a reminder of a problem Seattle has not solved: there are very few off-street spaces where vehicle residents can park for a long period of time, without the vehicles getting ticketed or impounded.

“Acting as reasonably as I can”

As part of the 2008 Superior Court case, the city seized six of Minetti’s vehicles and auctioned them off on Oct. 25, 2008, in Kenmore.

It was a mostly futile strategy: The city made $1,775 from their sale, a fraction of what Minetti had owed.

And Minetti likely got some of them back: He allegedly sent associates to the auction, and they simply bought the vehicles, said Seattle city attorney spokesperson Dan Nolte.

Advertising

Among the buyers: Daniel Quinlan. He purchased Minetti’s 1987 Chevy van, his 1977 Ford Econoline van and a 1975 Chevy truck, according to court records.

The city hasn’t pursued a similar consolidated case against a parking scofflaw since. “After spending all that time, all that energy to ultimately end in the status quo, it’s something we haven’t tried again,” Nolte said.

But Minetti still could be affected by Durkan’s push to purge the most dilapidated vehicles and RVs from the streets. In June, her office clarified the rules that allow the city to tow vehicles considered “junk,” speeding up the process for them to be towed and auctioned or destroyed. Seattle has towed both Minetti and Miller’s vehicles because they were considered junk.

Davis, the former assistant city attorney, is doubtful anything will prevent Minetti from doing what he wants. “He won’t be stopped,” he said.

As for the parking tickets, Minetti has no qualms about refusing to pay them.

“Are you crazy?” he said. “Where am I gonna get the money?”