Starting Friday, Seattle will again start enforcing parking laws that require vehicles to move from a spot on a public street after 72 hours, but only against abandoned vehicles or ones the city deems “unsafe.”
Enforcement largely stopped at the beginning of the pandemic, leaving many RVs and cars that homeless people live in to become permanent fixtures on city streets.
But it’s unclear what this first step toward resuming enforcement means for the hundreds of people living in vehicles in Seattle. Since the 72-hour rule was lifted in 2020, things have changed for people living in vehicles — both on the streets, and in the law.
First, the city Department of Transportation says it won’t tow vehicles that people are living in unless they pose unsafe or unsanitary conditions, such as leaking sewage or fire risk, according to a city spokesperson.
The agency will tow abandoned vehicles, but didn’t immediately provide details about how a vehicle is determined to be abandoned.
“I don’t know how you do that if every time you come to the location there’s nobody there,” said Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who runs the council’s Public Safety & Human Services Committee. “I have a sense that some vehicles are being used by people who are unsheltered for storage. So they may not actually be staying in the vehicle, but they still have their stuff in it.”
Though they’re a large and likely undercounted chunk of the outdoor homeless population in King County, the car- and RV-dwelling population, in particular, is one that nonprofits and the city spend little time or money working with. They tend to be resistant to staying in shelters because they can’t store all their belongings there, and many have racked up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in tickets, according to the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, whose Scofflaw Mitigation Team has been doing outreach with vehicle-dwellers for years.
It is a population that was fairly transient because of the 72-hour rule, but during the pandemic many stayed in place and as a result their vehicles have become inoperable, Kirlin-Hackett said.
Meanwhile, parking enforcement in Seattle has shifted: After the Black Lives Matter protests last year, Seattle moved its parking enforcement division out of the Police Department and into the transportation division, whose job is not to enforce laws but keep roads safe and clear.
In March, the city announced it would begin developing a plan to reinstate the 72-hour rule and educating people who were breaking it.
But this summer, an even bigger change hit the state. The Washington Supreme Court ruled in a case from 2016 that a truck impounded in Seattle was in fact the home of a man named Steven Long. They agreed with lower court rulings that impounding it and auctioning it off — as the city contractor, Lincoln Towing, does with vehicles that people don’t pay to get back — constitutes a violation of a frontier-era law called the Homestead Act, which ruled the state couldn’t seize and sell someone’s home.
All the ramifications of the Long v. Seattle ruling are unclear, and it would appear to allow the city to impound vehicles, but not to auction them if someone lives in them.
“Not everything needs to have a tow truck involved. And one of the things the city does is we try to be good communicators,” said Ethan Bergerson, a spokesperson for SDOT. “If someone’s living in a vehicle, or they’re not living in it but they let us know that they need repairs in order to move it, we’re planning on working with them and being flexible as long as they show there’s a good-faith effort to get those repairs done.”
Seattle’s City Council has funded “safe lot” programs where people can legally park and sleep, but right now the city only has 17 publicly funded parking spots, and those are designed for a quick stay. Efforts to ramp up those programs have slowed over the last year, because the city has been in the process of closing down its homelessness division in anticipation of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s taking over the city and county governments’ homelessness contracts.
The council funded spots for “at least” 25 RVs for this year, but those haven’t yet been set up, according to an email from Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda to the city’s Human Services Department this summer. Tess Colby, interim deputy director of the department, said in reply that the department had looked around at other cities trying safe lot programs and found nothing that resulted in much success.
“These programs — our prior ones and those of other communities — result in few exits to housing or shelter, making it hard to recommend investing additional dollars in unproven programs that have little success among a very specialized population that doesn’t recognize their situation as one of homelessness,” Colby said in the email. “We, as policymakers and program operators, do not know enough about the population that we are trying to serve to create a program that meets their needs.”
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority is developing a plan for the money the City Council has allotted, and authority spokesperson Anne Martens said safe lots will be part of that plan, but there’s no timeline yet. Martens said the situation is more complicated than Colby described in the email.
“I’m not sure anyone is super-excited to live in an RV, but they do see themselves as privileged among the population of people living outside,” Martens said, adding that many people who live in RVs have jobs. “It’s their home, and they don’t want to give up their home.”