More than 2,000 people in King County live in vehicles — some of them dilapidated RVs that are hazardous and even inoperable. But as Seattle has been towing these RVs in the last few years, a few keep reappearing.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is taking aim at those RVs and vehicles, specifically a practice known as “car-ranching,” where a “predatory landlord,” according to the city, will buy a towed vehicle at auction for cheap, and rent it to a homeless person or family.
The city is aware of “several” car-ranchers who own 10 to 12 vehicles each, said a city spokesperson. It’s unclear how widespread the practice is or how much money car-ranchers make, but in 2018, 53 percent of the RVs and vehicles that were towed — 60 vehicles in all — reappeared on Seattle’s streets.
Legislation announced Wednesday would allow Seattle to destroy RVs deemed a public-health hazard because of trash, human waste and drug use. It would also fine “predatory landlords” of those RVs.
“We have an obligation to protect public health and ensure that our neighbors are not living in inhumane conditions. And we will hold accountable those who prey on vulnerable people for profit,” Durkan said in the news release.
Businesses in areas like Sodo and Ballard, where many people are living in RVs, have been vocal critics of city policies that allow RVs to continue to pop up. Erin Goodman, executive director of the SODO BIA, said the legislation is a good first step.
“There’s a little cottage industry that’s sprung up around this,” Goodman said. “A lot of these are really unsafe for people to be living in.”
RVs in Sodo have been the site of several fires in the last few years, including one that destroyed two motor homes near the Spokane Street Viaduct.
Because it’s unclear how widespread this practice is, the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, a longtime advocate for rights of homeless people living in vehicles, doesn’t oppose the legislation, but isn’t sure how much good it will do.
It doesn’t address what he sees more often on the streets: People trading and selling cheap RVs over and over again, rather than renting them. Buyers of these cheap RVs could also just move outside Seattle, he said.
“There’s so many moving parts to this and they’re just trying to fix one little piece,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “There’s so many side problems here it’s like putting your fingers into the middle of a rosebush. There are thorns everywhere.”
Chuck Labertew, a manager at Lincoln Towing, the city’s contractor for towing, said “car-ranching” has been a problem for a long time, but it doesn’t happen as much anymore because the company and the city have been more vigilant.
“There’ve been people who’ve been banned from our auctions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a way of getting their folks into our auctions,” Labertew said.
King County’s annual point-in-time count of homelessness in January estimated 2,147 live in their vehicles — a drop from 2018, although the methodology of the 2019 snapshot count has been questioned. However, Seattle has struggled for years to stick to a strategy for getting those people off the street.
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who represents Ballard and Fremont, was wary of this strategy of stemming the supply.
“There are undoubtedly people who are taking advantage of homeless people and we should do everything we can to protect them, including from predatory lending or leasing programs,” O’Brien said. “And we also absolutely should regulate the safety. But if we’re going to kick someone out of a marginally safe RV so that they end up in a less-safe tent, that’s taking us in the wrong direction.”
A better direction, O’Brien feels, is giving people a safe place to live in their cars legally and help getting off the street. The city has approved funding for a safe parking lot program for people living in their vehicles, but has yet to find a place to site the lot.
A spokesperson for the city said officials are still working on finding a place to site the lot, but that an announcement will be made soon.
“We’re halfway through the year and anxiously awaiting the mayor’s proposal to spend the allocated money to get safe spots for people to be in vehicles,” O’Brien said.
The city was planning on putting the lot near Genesee Park and Playfield earlier this year, but pursued those plans without announcing them to the neighborhood. When neighbors complained about a lack of transparency in the process, City Hall withdrew its plans.