Seattle City Council members continue to express skepticism about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed legislation to target predatory vehicle landlords, though officials Wednesday offered a clearer picture of the practice’s magnitude.
Staffers said Seattle police and parking enforcement officers know of four people engaging in the behavior, which the mayor’s staff had dubbed “vehicle ranching” — the renting out of space in dilapidated, unsafe vehicles, often RVs, to homeless people. Those landlords own at least 30 to 40 vehicles each, said Seattle Central Staff analyst Jeff Simms, addressing the council’s Finance and Neighborhoods Committee.
Another 10 individuals have multiple vehicles in circulation, though some have been destroyed; while some people, operating in the Sodo and Georgetown neighborhoods, may only have one or two vehicles.
The mayor’s legislation, first discussed in the same council committee last week, would penalize people who rent out “extensively damaged” vehicles.
Council members continued to raise concerns that the current language in the proposal could negatively affect a wide range of people living in vehicles, even if they are not victims of predatory behavior: The legislation would apply to people who allow others to rent or occupy their vehicles, which could mean a person allowing their partner or relative to live in the vehicle could be labeled a rancher, Simms said.
Simms noted that the mayor’s proposal would require identified ranchers to pay up to $2,000 in restitution to victims, but that’s far less than what’s allowed under current Seattle landlord tenant laws.
Council members also worried that the proposal could ultimately leave people without any shelter options at all.
“As much as I hate having these RVs out there that are terrible in condition and not habitable, we don’t have places to put people,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, the committee chair. “We’re stirring the pot, putting people back on the street, back in tents, back in the cardboard boxes and we haven’t solved the problem.”
The discussion came two days after Councilmember Mike O’Brien proposed setting aside $100,000 for vehicle residents, a flexible pool of funds that could help vehicle residents secure stable housing.
Council approved the last-minute funding addition Monday as part of a supplemental budget vote. The mayor has 10 days to sign that budget; it would go into effect 30 days following her approval.
Those new funds can be used right now, O’Brien said, rather than waiting for a decision on the mayor’s proposed ranching legislation, which he believes doesn’t do enough to provide vehicle residents appealing shelter alternatives.
“Too often it feels like we’re trying to outlaw bad housing,” said O’Brien, who has led previous efforts in the city to create safe parking options for people living in vehicles. “Forcing someone in to a less good choice because we don’t like what they’re doing, it’s not going to work.”
Responding to the council vote on the supplemental funding, Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said the mayor agrees that the city must continue to provide services to vehicle residents “to help them escape these inhumane and uninhabitable situations. She calls on Council to support this legislation, which prohibits people from renting dilapidated vehicles that are a public health hazard, so the City can do more to protect public health and hold accountable those who prey on vulnerable people for profit.”
The Council won’t discuss the item again until after their summer recess.