There’s Lots to Love About Mike O’Brien’s RV Ordinance

The proposal forces a much needed conversation about those living in cars in Seattle.

Back in early April, Seattle authorities evicted an encampment beneath the east side of the West Seattle Bridge that included many RVs. No alternative sites were provided for the campers. With no sanctioned place to go, home for many of the car and RV campers became an empty lot in southwest Seattle that belonged to the Washington Department of Transportation. As Seattle Weekly’s Casey Jaywork reported at the time, “their goal is to create an organized, sustainable community that doesn’t suffer from the trash or violence many people associate with homeless encampments” (“A Lot to Talk About,” May 17). But that camp, too, would eventually prove untenable. By the end of May, campers were prepping for another sweep. Again, no alternatives were provided for where the RV dwellers might go to avoid further displacement by the city.

The string of evictions exposed in high definition the city’s failure to develop a workable plan for vehicle dwellers. There was an effort last year with so-called safe lots. But when costs reached $1,750 per RV at the Ballard site, the city scrapped it, then turned its attention to other problems. That was a big mistake, considering that some 40 percent of Seattle’s unsheltered homeless population lives in vehicles, according to this year’s homeless count.

Which is what makes the furious reaction to Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s draft proposal to address vehicular camping so frustrating. While the evictions detailed above got some media coverage, O’Brien’s effort to find a better way dominated several news cycles last week with mostly negative coverage. Certainly, aspects of O’Brien’s ordinance bear scrutiny. We’ll get to those in a moment. But before we do, let us just say: Thank you, Mike O’Brien, for making us talk about this. As we’ve learned time and time again, it’s easy enough for the city as a whole to turn a blind eye toward plight; may this ordinance bring our focus to it instead.

In a news conference last week to discuss the ordinance—still in draft form—O’Brien rightly argued that the city has dropped the ball on helping homeless people living in their cars, and that at the very least he hopes his bill will “elevate the topic of vehicle residence.” The bill would create a framework in which people living in their cars could register with a city program that identified them as “vehicular residents.” Doing so would connect them with city services aimed at getting people out of homelessness, but also protect them from tickets and towing for violating various city parking codes.

The ordinance envisions designating certain streets—yet to be determined—as places where people could park without fear of getting ticketed for breaking Seattle’s 72-hour parking rule. O’Brien also says he wants to create 40 to 50 small lots across the city that could house a handful of vehicles each, creating small versions of Seattle’s doomed safe-lot experiment from last year. And the measure would create an amnesty program in which people who come forward and register with the vehicular-residency program could have their parking tickets waived.

O’Brien has had to play defense with the measure after an early version was opportunistically leaked by Scott Lindsay, who oversaw homelessness issues for Mayor Ed Murray before leaving his job to run for city attorney. From this leak, Lindsay has gotten lots of camera time talking tough on homelessness by emphasizing the provisions in O’Brien’s measure that would shield the homeless from parking tickets. Tellingly, though, Lindsay has not articulated a workable alternative; thus we must assume he and those supporting him favor the status quo.

We don’t.

As O’Brien notes, saddling people living in their cars with parking tickets they can’t afford, not to mention towing and impounding the vehicles that are acting as their home, hurts city efforts to get a handle on homelessness. When the city impounds a car that is someone’s house, “We’re not going to get paid,” he said. “We’re just going to get a junk vehicle and another person on the street.” O’Brien related one instance he’s aware of in which a homeless man, who has been on the waiting list for a subsidized apartment for three years, had to go to the hospital, and ended up having his legs amputated. When he returned to his RV, he found it had been impounded.

We understand that some aspects of O’Brien’s proposal might strike people as a way of simply getting rid of parking regulations. And, indeed, if done incorrectly, the “flexibility” in parking enforcement that O’Brien is proposing could devolve into a game of bureaucratic pass-the-buck in which lots of agencies say their hands are tied to do anything about problem vehicles. However, if done correctly, this plan should result in fewer conflicts between RVs and neighbors and more outreach for services. Critics of the ordinance should focus on ways to improve the bill to ensure the latter, rather than tearing it down to ensure more of the same.

editorial@seattleweekly.com

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that 40 percent of Seattle’s homeless population lives in vehicles. In fact, 40 percent of Seattle’s unsheltered homeless population live in vehicles.

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