San Francisco could reduce fees charged to homeless residents who get towed. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF may lower tow fee for homeless to $100 — with proof of homelessness

Costs may increase for others

San Francisco may lower the tow fees for those who are homeless, but some argue no one who is living in their vehicles should have them towed in the first place.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors is discussing lowering the fee Tuesday. The final decision would not be voted on until the board votes on the agency’s total budget proposal next month.

In 2018, in acknowledgement of the inequity, the agency provided a discount for a tow if vehicle owners have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty levels and can show proof like a CalFresh EBT card or a Medi-Cal card.

First-time tows cost $450 and repeat tows $537. The low-income tow fee is $238.

But those who work for the Financial Justice Project in the Office of the Treasurer, a program that strives to reduce or eliminate fees and fines with an adverse impact on low-income residents and people of color, said they have heard along with the transit agency that the tow fees remain a problem for those who are living in their vehicles.

“That fee is still out of reach for many people who are struggling with homelessness and coming up with that several hundred dollars is still a major barrier, as well as that many people who are struggling with homelessness may not have those cards on them at all times,” Christa Brown, Financial Justice Project manager, told the Local Homeless Coordinating Board Monday.

Brown said that they have worked with the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to create a letter for those who have gone through the department’s coordinated entry process, a system that assesses a person’s needs to puts them on a track to connect with services, to qualify them for discounts.

“They are proposing to actually use that letter to allow people to get an even deeper discount on their towing fees as well as to extend the amount of time that people have to get their car back before they start incurring these additional storage charges, which are $52 a day,” Brown said.

Currently, the low-income discount allows a waiver for four days of storage fees, but that would be extended to 15 days under the proposal.

The SFMTA, through its contract with tow company AutoReturn, tows about 35,300 vehicles a year, of which 4,350, or 12 percent, belong to low-income drivers, 23,600 are first time tows and 7,350 are repeat tows, according to the agency’s report on the proposal.

The report notes that “San Francisco fees for repeat and first-time tows are highest in California (except for limited tow types in Modesto)” and that these changes for the homeless are “recommended for equity reasons.”

The proposal is to adopt a “new low one-time $100 fee for customers certified by Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing as experiencing homelessness” through the issuance of the letter and to “increase storage waiver for low-income clients from 4 days to 15 days.”

The financial impact to the agency’s revenues, the report said, is “likely small.”

“We know that it takes people time to cobble together even $100,” Brown said. “And so we do think expanding from four days to 15 days the amount of time people have to pull that money together is going to be really important.”

Brian Edwards, with the Coalition on Homelessness, said that the proposal moves in the right direction but falls short of actually addressing the problem.

He suggested that the storage fee waiver should last for longer than 15 days, possibly 30 days, and that The City should foot the $100.

But the most effective way to address the problem is not to tow the vehicle in the first place, Edwards said.

“I would really like to see us stop doing law enforcement interventions first and then find a way to ameliorate it downstream,” Edwards said. “Let’s just stop towing people’s vehicles and let’s stop citing them for bullshit citations.”

The City opened its first site in December to allow people living in their vehicles to park there overnight while they are offered services. There is room for about 30 vehicles. Other sites are possible. The City recently identified 14 other potential areas they could use. There are an estimated 814 people homeless and living in their vehicles.

In addition to the proposed homeless discount, the board is also looking at possibly raising the fee for those who aren’t homeless and low-income.

The agency’s report shows its tow program actually loses money, some $4.7 million in the current fiscal year. The fees collected go toward the cost of the program.

One option is to eliminate the shortfall on repeat tows while reducing the shortfall on first time tows by $700,000 to recover $1 million. That would mean repeat tow fees would increase from $537 to $574 next year and the first time tow fee would increase from $450 to $480.

Another option being explored is to recover more money, $2 million, by raising the fee further on first time tows to $520.

The report notes that “for reference, each additional $1M recovered is equivalent to the direct costs of approximately 9 transit operators or parking control officers.”

The agency also said the current tow contract expires March 2021 and it plans to “look for ways to reduce costs during RFP and negotiation process.”

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