Advocates call for permanent moratorium on ‘poverty tows’

Ron Trathen hates change. He recalls moving around a lot as a kid, and now he prefers to put down...

Ron Trathen hates change. He recalls moving around a lot as a kid, and now he prefers to put down roots. That’s why he’s spent the last four years on Bayshore Boulevard.

Today, home is the motorhome where he lives with his partner, Linda, and three dogs. But Trathen says he’s had 11 vehicles towed in the last six years on San Francisco’s streets. It makes creating a place to call his own a difficult task.

Trathen, a carpenter by training, typically loses his vehicle because he’s racked up a hefty sum of unpaid citations or has out-of-date registration. Despite odd jobs, he usually can’t afford the tickets, and when he can, it’s hard to navigate City Hall comfortably after years of transiency and a prison record from nearly 20 years ago.

Shelter-in-place brought temporary respite. Vehicle dwellers like Trathen could stay put knowing they wouldn’t be towed for unpaid tickets, expired registration or staying in the same spot for more than 72-hours, three of the most common reasons for vehicularly housed individuals to experience a tow. More spaces were open to them, too, because the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency suspended metered parking and street cleaning enforcement.

But some of those protections have since lapsed, starting with the re-introduction of citations for unpaid parking meters and street cleaning violations. Individuals living in their cars told the San Francisco Examiner they’ve noticed the number of parking personnel and police creeping back towards pre-pandemic levels; consequently, they are fielding more door-knocks and drive-bys. Some have already received tickets, many of which could be subject to late fees starting Sept. 1, rapidly increasing their debt whenever the provisional tow ban is lifted.

In a June 19 letter to SFMTA, a coalition of 27 city organizations asked the agency to make the moratorium permanent and the payment system more accessible.

Advocates say these SFMTA policies disproportionately target the extremely low-income and unhoused.

“The moratorium on towing has been the biggest relief for people who live in their vehicles, and it’s had no deleterious effects for The City,” said Tori Larson, a lawyer who runs the towing clinic at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, a signatory of the letter. “It’s such a clear, correct next step.”

With a penchant for storytelling, Trathen recounts sagas of attempts to reclaim his vehicles from AutoReturn, the contractor that SFMTA hires to tow.

Trathen said he’s paid as much as $3,000 to reclaim a vehicle, and other times he’s had all his belongings, including the tools he uses for hourly maintenance work, towed in an old trailer. He says he’s lost or been denied every tow hearing he’s requested at City Hall, and the paperwork can be overwhelming.

“You’re stripped of everything. It might not be much to somebody but to me it’s everything,” he said.

San Francisco’s fees for repeat and first-time tows are some of the highest in the state, and a person must pay outstanding ticket debt. The combination leads to sums that can bankrupt someone already living on a shoestring budget.

Trathen and hundreds more each year face the same dire choice: pay hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars to retrieve your home or hit the streets.

Losing a vehicle can be devastating.

“When you’re in that situation you lose everything. Every second becomes an eternity. You can’t go buy a cup of coffee, or sit in your living room,” he said. “It’s like being in prison in your own head for a time, it’s a really hard thing to get out of and to stay positive.”

‘Poverty tows’

At the beginning of shelter-in-place, SFMTA announced it would stop towing vehicles for three reasons: five or more unpaid parking tickets, vehicle registration expired by more than six months or remaining in the same spot for over 72 hours.

But these are just three of the more than 30 allowable reasons for towing within the statewide vehicle code.

An SFMTA spokesperson told the Examiner in an email that towing practices are designed to “enforce vehicle registration, including the environmental benefits of smog checks, as well as promote public safety such as vehicles blocking bus zones, disabled ramps, driveways, etc.”

But the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which calls these “poverty tows,” says while every resident is subject to the rules, enforcement disproportionately targets vulnerable individuals living in their cars, many of whom are persons of color.

A tow also jumpstarts a cycle of debt, displacement and poverty, which can be debilitating in the current environment where so many are already living hand-to-mouth.

The City recognizes the cost of tows as a “serious equity issue,” and the agency’s made strides to “reduce the impact” of parking regulations and fines on the most vulnerable, most recently passing a revised two-year budget in June that addresses some of those concerns.

Low income individuals can pay off their parking citations using a payment plan in which they pay $25 to enroll and make minimum monthly payments calculated based on what they owe. The plan covers up to $1,000 annually per person, but if a person misses the payment, they must default and re-enroll. Data shows 45 percent of the low-income payment plans weren’t completed last fiscal year.

They can also work off up to $1,000 per year by doing community service at a community-service and with SFMTA or the Department of Public Works. That program’s been more successful, with 987 participants and just a 24% failure rate last fiscal year.

SFMTA also lowered its boot fee to $100 for low-income vehicle owners, provided local service providers identify them as currently experiencing homelessness, and it increased the storage fee waiver to 15 days.

However, many activists say these measures, while a good foundation, still miss the mark.

“It’s a legal system that’s supposed to be a deterrent to something, but the flaw there logically is that when it comes to people who are living in their vehicles as a last resort, deterrence doesn’t make sense. That’s not a behavior, they’re just trying to survive,” Armando Garcia, human rights organizer at the Coalition on Homelessness, said.

In the June letter, local service providers recommended creating a notification system for tows and automating the payment plan system with regular reminders and online payment.

SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin wrote in his response on July 2 The City that would be transitioning the payment program to the treasurer’s office, which already has these capabilities. He also said he would be “evaluating opportunities” to implement a warning notice program.

Other efforts, such as The City’s first safe parking site at the Balboa Park BART station that provided 30 spaces for vehicles to park for 90 days while residents connected with social services, have met with mixed reviews. Grassroots organizers including Garcia said it didn’t give vehicle dwellers independence, and talks of the pilot expanding seem to have fallen quiet since COVID-19 hit.

“I don’t see it as an alternative to the end of poverty tows because The City will simply not have enough space to house everyone like that, and some people still won’t feel safe there,” Lawson said.

Neighbor complaints

At 31, Mana Dream has lived in their RV for three years this October. They gave up their six-figure salary as a software engineer to be able to pursue a dream as an artist, but they say the only way to do that and still live in San Francisco is to take up residence in a vehicle.

“This is the closest thing I’ve ever had to my own house,” Dream said. “I have all my possessions, I have a cat, I have a place to cook, a place for me to work, a bathroom.”

Dream has avoided towing because they’re “vigilant” about moving the vehicle, even if that means every night to avoid street cleaning. But they liken towing to “someone coming in and taking your home away from you, telling you that you cannot exist and the way you’re living isn’t allowed.”

Tows and ticketing typically follow neighbor complaints, so Dream now parks near Lake Merced, where housed residents don’t seem to mind as much. There were a lot of trailers there before the COVID-19 crisis, and after a brief lull, the number seems to have increased in recent weeks, they said.

“If people don’t call, then nothing’s going to happen. I’m not trying to bother anybody. I’m trying to stay out of people’s way as much as I can.” Dream said.

But the reality is, many people do call.

According to San Francisco’s 311 call logs, over 300 reports of homeless encampments have been made in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach since March 14, where a combination community of tents and vehicles has cropped up near the Safeway during shelter-in-place.

That’s compared to just under 60 in the same area during the same period last year.

A comments section on neighborhood organization SOAR1 — “Save Our Amazing Richmond District 1” — is littered with complaints about crime, cleanliness and general blight. Most attribute their concerns to homelessness, encampments and “transients living out of their vehicles.”

SOAR1’s tagline is “neighbors working to find real solutions.” For those living in their vehicles, the fix seems to be getting rid of them.

“It’s like they want to make us so miserable that we’ll leave and then go, but go where? We’re trying to be something beneficial to you, rather than a burden or a headache.” Trathen said.

Even residents on the relative safe haven of Lake Merced Boulevard along Winston Street were nearly given the boot to make space for this week’s PGA tour. “No stopping” signs lined the street last Saturday, and RVs started to leave in response. But a flurry of pubic backlash caused Public Works to remove the signs by Monday morning.

Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents that area that includes Bayview, says he’s noticed a significant increase in the number of people living in their vehicles within his district since the COVID-19 crisis began. He favors a permanent moratorium, though he does have some questions, and says he’s in discussions about the idea.

Dream said the biggest thing people misunderstand about many who live in their vehicles is actually quite simple: They’re people, too.

“We want to work, we want to have a sense of growth and progression in life. We’re not different from anyone else,” they said. “I’m not a drain on society.”

Economics of towing

San Francisco loses an estimated $4.7 million annually on its towing program, according to an SFMTA presentation. Costs go toward its contract with AutoReturn combined with the labor and work order. Revenues in the form of fees have dropped as SFMTA’s implemented waivers and lower fares for low-income individuals but hasn’t passed along the cost to those who can pay full price, according to an SFMTA spokesperson.

Advocates say ending these tows altogether will significantly cut costs borne by the agency and provide relief during the current budget crisis.

Larson emphasizes the need to end towing for expired registration, unpaid citations and more-than-72-hour stays for everyone, not just for those living in their vehicles.

“Our clients are living in poverty, and they’re the ones facing this the most, so they’re the ones we’re trying to champion this policy for,” Larson said. “But, overall, we just think it’s bad public policy for anyone to lose a vehicle for a small debt that they owe to The City.”

SFMTA said it would consider all options, and it has yet to announce when the temporary moratorium on poverty tows will sunset.

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