City impoundment of RV dwellers’ vehicles challenged as unconstitutional

Advocates for the homeless filed a lawsuit against The City and other agencies Wednesday for towing, impounding and selling RVs and other oversized-vehicles without a warrant, alleging that it violates the rights of an already at-risk population.

Under current policy, vehicle owners who have received five or more unpaid parking violations in a given time frame are subject to towing.

The lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court Wednesday names The City, its Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Francisco Police Department and towing contractor Auto Return. It alleges that owners are often not provided with proper notice or an opportunity to dispute the seizure, even if their vehicles are legally parked, “not involved in any crime or traffic urgency” and provide their only means of shelter.

Advocates say the towing policy violates RV dweller’s protection from unreasonable seizures and searches, and does not provide an opportunity to contest the towing of a vehicle based on extenuating circumstances, such as using it for shelter or work.

The lawsuit follows a federal court ruling in October that ordered the SFMTA to return a homeless man’s car due to concerns about the constitutionality of The City’s towing practices.

“There is a right to a tow hearing after the tow. We are challenging that as an inadequate process…because all the hearing officer is allowed to asses is whether or not there are five outstanding tickets,” said Claire Johnson Raba, an attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid, which along with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, is representing the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness in the lawsuit.

“Under the constitution our clients are entitled to notice before their vehicle is towed and an opportunity to explain why it would be unjust to seize their vehicle,” said Johnson Raba.

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According to the lawsuit, San Francisco unlawfully seizes more than 4,000 vehicles each year “for the purpose of collecting municipal debt and punishing non payment of parking tickets.”

“The City seizes such cars even when the car is the owner’s only home and shelter or source of livelihood, and even when the owner is extremely low-income and cannot afford to pay the parking tickets,” alleges the lawsuit filed by the Coalition on Homelessness.

More than 1,200 people are estimated to be living out of their vehicles in San Francisco, but the lawsuit would affect many more, including “anyone who can’t afford to pay parking tickets in San Francisco, which now are the most expensive in the country,” said Elisa Della Piana, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee.

“A system designed to alleviate emergencies is being used as a debt collection tool that is taking away poor families’ only asset and sometimes their home in San Francisco,” said Della Piana, adding that “it is harming people who live in their vehicles and use them for work.”

She added that The City has “refused to come to the table with homeless advocates to discuss better policies” over the last two years.

On Tuesday, the MTA Board approved policy guidelines for restricting overnight parking of oversized vehicles on city streets, which currently is based on a complaint-driven system that the commissioners agreed is flawed.

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In 2004, the Board of Supervisors’ Finance and Audits Committee considered a citywide parking restriction for oversized vehicles, but instead approved parking restrictions on a street-by-street basis — at the discretion of the MTA — for oversized vehicles in 2012.

That policy in effect pushed RV’s and other oversized vehicles to neighborhoods without street restrictions, moving the issue to other neighborhoods. It also resulted in the displacement of vehicular inhabitants, causing the MTA to impose a moratorium on the approval of new parking restrictions in 2015, in anticipation of a citywide solution.

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Tensions over the presence of RVs in residential pockets of the Bayview, Mission and Portola neighborhoods have come to a head in recent months. Portola neighbors last week said at a public hearing held by the district’s supervisor, Hillary Ronen, that some two dozen RV’s parked in the area — mostly around the University Mound area— posed safety and quality of life threats.

The San Francisco Examiner reported in October that a first-time city count of vehicle dwellers found 432 vehicles with people sleeping in them, of which 313 were RVs, and 119 were passenger vehicles. A majority of the vehicles’ occupants were homeless, while others were identified as workers who opted to sleep in their cars to shorten their commutes.

Ronen has mulled legislation to address RV’s parked in her district, but took a step back last month after Mayor London Breed announced that she was working with supervisors Ahsha Safai and Vallie Brown on a citywide program to assess RV dweller’s needs and connecting them to housing options.

SEE RELATED: SF weighs new policies, plans for RV dwellers

A three-person RV Encampment Resolution Team formed recently by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has “identified 23 oversized vehicles on their initial assessment” in the Portola, said department spokesperson Randy Quezada, Quezada said that two “problematic” vehicles had moved and the team is currently “working with the occupants of vehicles and looking to work with others in over the coming weeks.”

He said placement in one of The City’s Navigation Centers is an option for some, but not for all.

“We would work to link any families with young children to our family access points and work with them that way,” he said.

Quezada warned that after Dec. 31, “SFPD and SFMTA will work to enforce applicable parking and vehicle code regulations.”

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