Durkan Legislation Would Fine Anyone Who “Allows” Another Person to Live in “Extensively Damaged” Vehicle

Mayor Jenny Durkan just sent legislation down to the city council that would give the city the authority to fine and prosecute anyone who “allow” other people “to occupy any motor vehicle or recreational vehicle… that is extensively damaged.”

Durkan first announced that she would be proposing a crackdown on junk RVs back in June, on the grounds that unethical RV owners are exploiting homeless people by charging them exorbitant rates to live in inoperable and dangerous vehicles. At the time, the mayor’s office also instituted a new policy that makes it easier for the city to confiscate and destroy “derelict” vehicles instead of allowing them to go back on the market. Durkan’s office provided no data suggesting the extent of this practice, known “RV ranching” or “car farming,” and the legislation doesn’t specify how common it actually is, using phrases like “has increased in frequency over time” and words like “many” to suggest that the problem is widespread. (I’ve asked the mayor’s office for any analysis they used in crafting the legislation.)

The bill, which will likely be amended by the council, would impose a fine of $250 a day on anyone who “allows” people to live in a derelict vehicle, a definition that encompasses everything from cracked windows to leaking fluids to inadequate interior waterproofing.

One thing that is certain is that residents and businesses—particularly in the SoDo industrial area, which is one of a limited number of places in Seattle where parking RVs is legal—have complained repeatedly about the proliferation of RVs near their properties.

The bill, which will likely be amended by the council, would impose a fine of $250 a day on anyone who “allows” people to live in a derelict vehicle, a definition that encompasses everything from cracked windows to leaking fluids to inadequate interior waterproofing. That person—presumably, but not explicitly, a “landlord” who actually owns the vehicle—would also be required to pay up to $2,000 in restitution to the person or people living in the vehicle. The second offense would be a misdemeanor, subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail.

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City council member Mike O’Brien, who has supported creating “safe lots” for people living in their vehicles to park at night, says although he doesn’t support allowing people to lease derelict RVs at exorbitant rents, “I’d like to better understand how pervasive this practice is” before “giving authority [to the city] to do a lot more impounding and taking away people’s housing. … If the goal is to get people out of living in RVs and into better housing, which is my goal, we should have a policy that gives these folks better options, rather than simply taking away the one bad option that they have.

One thing the legislation does not do is ensure that displaced vehicular residents—whose next-best choice might be a tent in the woods—have access to adequate shelter, not just a mat on the ground or a promise of possible money in the future. People who live in vehicles have various reasons for doing so, ranging from severe addiction and mental illness to a lost job to the fact that they offer more privacy, safety, and autonomy than other alternatives. Currently, the city lacks adequate resources to house or even shelter its thousands of vehicular residents, much less provide intensive addiction and mental-health care services to those who need them.

The scenario the mayor’s legislation contemplates—kick people out of vehicles, but force their “landlord” to give them a couple of thousand dollars to land on their feet—is “pretty unrealistic,” O’Brien says. It assumes that people who own derelict RVs are relatively wealthy themselves, which seems unsupported by what the city does know about RV owners. Without a city fund to ensure that vehicular residents actually get paid, O’Brien notes, it’s hard to see how this legislation will actually benefit the vulnerable people it purports to help. And without guarantees of shelter, housing, and just compensation for any property that gets tossed away along with a vehicle whose missing tires or “poor air quality” qualify it as “junk,” the legislation could be just another way of banning homeless people from existing in the city’s public spaces.

The council’s finance and neighborhoods committee will get a briefing on the legislation this Friday morning.

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