SFMTA to resume ‘poverty tows’ amid calls to make temporary ban permanent

Fines and fees hurt low-income, homeless residents, but officials say they are a necessary tool

At the start of the pandemic, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority temporarily suspended some types of vehicle tows in an effort to reduce the burden on low income and unhoused individuals.

Now they are set to resume in a matter of weeks, despite calls from advocates to permanently end them altogether.

Advocates refer to a handful of towing policies as “poverty tows” because they’re believed to disproportionately impact extremely low-income and unhoused residents: those for five or more unpaid citations, those for vehicle registration expired by more than six months and those for vehicles that stay in the same spot for more than 72-hours.

The SFMTA stopped towing vehicles for these three reasons at the start of shelter-in-place last year, but on Tuesday the board heard from staff that the transit agency will reinstate them in the coming weeks.

Vehicles left in place for more than 72 hours can be towed starting May 17. Those with expired registration or delinquent citations can be towed starting June 21.

“I just want to say that towing does not enforce paying debt,” said Flo Kelly from the Coalition on Homelessness, one of nearly two dozen callers who urged the SFMTA not to resume towing on Tuesday. “If a person has no money, they have no money, and towing just completely turns a person’s life upside down.”

The plan was presented as an informational item, and did not require board approval to move ahead.

Together, these three categories account for roughly 17 percent of total tows across The City. Advocates say they should end permanently, particularly given their harmful impact on people who use their vehicles as shelter.

“A poverty tow is an eviction without tenant protections perpetrated by The City itself,” said Tori Larson from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin described towing as a desperately needed tool to achieve basic compliance with parking policies, deter bad actors and ensure complaints from residents around The City who feel they can’t access their streets safely due to abandoned vehicles are adequately addressed, all without sacrificing the equity and dignity of a vehicle’s owner, especially if that person is vulnerable.

“We’re not dialing things back to where they were pre-COVID. We’re going from laissez faire to a thoughtful place about halfway between where we were and where we’ve been […],” Tumlin said.

San Francisco’s towing fees are staggering at over $500 for a first time full priced tow. Recovering the vehicle requires the car owner to pay any outstanding ticket debt, too.

At times, the result can be a paralyzing sum topping thousands of dollars that can jumpstart a cycle of debt, displacement and poverty for someone already living life on the margins.

Before the pandemic, SFMTA took steps to address the impact of these tows on those experiencing poverty, many of whom are Black and Brown residents.

Recreational vehicles park along Winston Drive near Lake Merced and San Francisco State University. Towing fees and fines can be devastating for those living in their vehicles. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Recreational vehicles park along Winston Drive near Lake Merced and San Francisco State University. Towing fees and fines can be devastating for those living in their vehicles. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

It created monthly payment plans and community service options to pay off up to $1,000 in fees owed annually, lowered its boot fee to $100 for vehicle owners verified as experiencing homelessness and increased the vehicle storage fee waiver to 15 days.

Tuesday’s proposal goes further, in what SFMTA said was a direct response to feedback from advocates.

For these three towing categories, vehicle owners can expect to see warning notices of a forthcoming tow further in advance, along with instructions included in the paper citations issued by parking control officers for how to access payment plans and other services. Those living in their vehicles or currently unhoused can receive a one-time waiver for all outstanding citations or have subsequent fees reduced.

The board will vote on these waivers in June, but advocates say after-the-fact solutions don’t address the real issue.

“The harm happens at the point of the tow, and the solutions for the back end will not help those who have lost their home,” Larson said.

According to SFMTA, tows for delinquent citations are an important tool to deter non-payment of illegal parking; those for expired registration help to ensure vehicles remain in compliance with state regulations; and those for vehicles parked in the same space for more than 72 hours allow The City to remove abandoned vehicles and effectively manage streets.

District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai sent a representative from his office to read a statement supporting the decision to resume towing. His district experiences a disproportionately high number of abandoned vehicles, and his statement said they catalyze illegal activity such as car break-ins and dumping.

By contrast, Supervisors Connie Chan and Dean Preston submitted a letter asking the agency to extend the moratorium for the three violations at hand until 120 days after the public health emergency is lifted. They called for a more robust conversation about the policy’s equity impacts.

Almost every board member asked for concrete data on who these people being towed really are, and each was repeatedly told this information is largely unavailable, often due to privacy and equity restrictions outside the SFMTA’s purview.

What we do know is that roughly 1,800 San Francisco residents lived in their vehicles as of the most recent point-in-time homelessness count conducted in 2019, and that, anecdotally, a sizable number of the vehicles towed in these three categories belong to people who can’t afford to pay.

We also know there are truly abandoned vehicles that pose safety and quality-of-life challenges to residents who often call to lodge a complaint, many of whom live in The City’s southeastern districts. Those same neighborhoods, though, are where San Francisco’s highest concentrations of low income residents and communities of color reside, and they continue to experience significantly higher rates of vehicle tows than other parts of The City.

But the process to determine whether a vehicle is truly abandoned, owned by low-income individuals disproportionately harmed by fees or owned by someone who can pay remains unclear.

Director Amanda Eaken, who called staff’s decision to present this information as an informational presentation “in-between policy making,” ventured a guess as to what would happen if there had been a vote on this item in front of the board: “I bet it would fail.”

The board directed staff to return in three months prepared for a more robust policy conversation, including data to justify the program’s imperative, options for restructuring the financials of the program and plans for how to deal with its equity and poverty questions.

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