Fight over ‘poverty tows’ heats up

‘What can we do to ensure the vehicle stays in the hands of the owner?’

Life for people living in their vehicles has been difficult during the pandemic. But it’s been easier than before COVID-19 struck in one essential way: the near-constant fears of their vehicles being towed have been largely eliminated.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency suspended towing for three violations at the start of the pandemic in an effort to ease the financial burden on vehicle owners who can’t afford fees associated with parking tickets and registration or those who live in their cars.

Any vehicle owner with registration expired over six months, an accural of five or more unpaid parking tickets or who didn’t move the car for 72 hours could live without the anxiety of facing a potential tow. These citations disproportionately affect low income residents or people who turn their vehicles into their homes.

That will end on June 28, when SFMTA plans to resume the practice.

Homelessness advocates, led by the Coalition on Homelessness, recently filed a lawsuit against The City that it hopes will stop the planned restart.

Director Jeffrey Tumlin has, on multiple occasions, described towing for these violations as an imperative tool to achieve basic compliance with parking policies, ensure vehicles meet emissions standards, deter deliberately bad actors and respond to residents around The City who feel they can’t access their streets safely.

But the lawsuit, which only goes after the practice of seizing vehicles whose owners have failed to pay parking tickets, alleges these tows are unconstitutional and deny a person’s basic rights to “protection against warrantless seizures.”

City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office also backs the transit agency’s policies.

“We’re confident that SFMTA’s towing practices, which rely on authority specifically granted by the Legislature, are lawful and pass constitutional muster,” spokesperson Meiling Bedard said in an email.

Tori Larson, one of the plaintiff lawyers in the lawsuit, says that outside the advocates’ legal case, they believe the tows constitute bad public policy.

“These are debt collection tows,” she said. “They’re merely towed because an officer ran their plates.”

Roughly 1,800 San Franciscans lived in their vehicles as of the most recent point-in-time homelessness count in 2019. Anecdotally, officials and advocates alike believe that number has increased during the pandemic as a result of economic and housing insecurities.

Advocates and city officials agree that these individuals are at risk of having their vehicles — and therefore much of their livelihoods — impounded by The City.

However, exactly who owns the vehicles getting towed is hard to know. A slew of privacy regulations limit The City’s ability to collect information about demographics, income, and housing status, for example.

What we do know, though, is that a high proportion of vehicle seizures occur in neighborhoods where San Francisco’s lower income households and people of color reside, such as the Bayview, Hunters Point, SoMa, Tenderloin and Western Addition, according to an analysis of SFMTA data by SFMTA watchdog and Citizens Advisory Committee member Chris Arvin.

We also know, because SFMTA acknowledged it at a board meeting last month, that parking control officers don’t have a systematic, fine-tuned approach to determine whether a vehicle is abandoned, owned by a low-income person likely to be unduly harmed by fees or simply the property of someone who doesn’t feel like following the rules.

SFMTA acknowledged at that same board meeting that its policies, to date, have failed to successfully protect the most vulnerable from losing their vehicles, though officials say they have tried.

Before the pandemic, they created monthly payment plans and community service options to reduce some of the staggering fees an individual must pay to reclaim a vehicle that’s been towed and resolve outstanding parking citation debt.

At the May 4 board meeting, SFMTA officials rolled out a number of additional protections that they said respond to feedback from advocates.

They committed to providing vehicle owners in non-compliance with these three standards — expired registration, extended stay and unpaid parking tickets — with written notice of a forthcoming tow in advance, along with instructions included in a paper citation issued by parking control officers for how to access payment plans and other services.

Those living in their vehicles can also receive a one-time waiver for all outstanding parking fees.

Tumlin called this change a departure from “laissez faire” conditions pre-COVID to a “more thoughtful place about halfway between where we were and where we’ve been.”

But SFMTA maintains these three types of tows can’t be eliminated outright.

First, there are legitimately abandoned vehicles that create safety or quality-of-life hazards for neighbors.

District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai told the SFMTA board during the May 4 meeting that he supports the decision to resume towing. His neighborhood sees a disproportionate concentration of abandoned vehicles, which he believes catalyze illegal activities such as car break-ins and dumping, according to a statement delivered by an office representative.

Then, in the case of vehicle owners who are simply non-compliant with rules, the threat of towing allows SFMTA to effectively manage streets in the case of cars blocking crosswalks, fire hydrants and other safety-related infrastructure, Tumlin told the board.

Advocacy groups have been in talks with The City to try to identify a “middle ground” solution, according to Larson. But she emphasized the only compromise that would adequately address concerns raised in the suit would be those that keep the tow from happening in the first place, such as requiring a warrant before towing and making it easier to challenge the potential seizure.

“The harm happens at the point of the tow,” she said. “What can we do to ensure that the vehicle stays in the hands of the owner?”

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