Seattle City Council members raised concerns Friday with Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to penalize so-called vehicle ranchers, who rent out dilapidated vehicles to homeless people, worrying the measure could unfairly affect any person living in an RV or other automobile.
City staff emphasized the legislation, discussed in a Finance and Neighborhoods Committee meeting, is designed to target only the “predatory rentals of unsafe vehicles,” said Calvin Goings, director of the city’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services. At one point, Goings called the conditions in some RVs “not fit for a dog” and ranchers “slumlords on wheels.”
Goings also said, as many homeless advocates and council members have argued, that the proposed legislation “does not solve the broader vehicle living challenges” in Seattle. For example, there is only one safe lot in Seattle for people living in their vehicles with only a handful of parking spots, and RVs are not allowed.
The city’s most popular shelter options are regularly full, and affordable housing options are limited, issues that council members raised repeatedly during Friday’s meeting. Vehicle residents often don’t see themselves as homeless, nor are they as willing to give up their vehicle in exchange for living in a shelter. More than 2,100 people were living in their vehicles in King County during this year’s one-night homeless count.
In response to repeated questions from Councilmember Mike O’Brien, city staffers conceded they still can’t precisely define the extent of ranching. They believe two to five people are engaged in the practice and could be victimizing dozens of people.
“This sounds like a narrow problem,” O’Brien said, adding later the city would still have “hundreds and hundreds of vehicles out there after this is done.” City staff said the legislation, if adopted, could result in more victims coming forward and could also discourage the practice.
Durkan’s proposed measure would fine ranchers $250 per day if they are allowing people to occupy or rent a vehicle that the city considers “extensively damaged,” meaning it has inadequate sanitation or weather protection, doesn’t run, or is a health, fire or safety hazard. Ranchers would also have to pay tenants up to $2,000 in restitution to help them relocate and could face misdemeanor charges.
Council members zeroed in on the word “occupy” in the proposed legislation, with Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda saying the current language does not distinguish enough between penalizing those who rent out the vehicles and those living in them. She worried some people might not let anyone stay in their RVs, even if there is no money exchanged, for fear of facing penalties.
The mayor’s office said the proposal was written more broadly in case victims struggle to prove in court that they are renting.
Council members questioned the likelihood ranchers could actually pay thousands of dollars in restitution. Richard Winn, a rancher featured in a Seattle Times’ story about the practice, said he will have to move back into one of his RVs because he is being forced out of his Shoreline apartment.
O’Brien worried the proposed legislation could be imposed on vehicle tenants, even if they felt they weren’t being abused. Kiersten Grove, with the mayor’s office, said the intent is to focus on people who come forward to report victimization and also target those living in severely damaged vehicles.
“We are not talking about all RVs,” Grove said. “We are talking about a very specific subset.”
The Finance and Neighborhoods Committee is slated to discuss the proposal again on Aug. 14. The soonest it could go to the full council is in September.