O’Brien releases working draft of “vehicular residence” legislation

Local media have been buzzing this week with reports that Council member Mike O’Brien would introduce a law that relaxes parking restrictions for homeless people using a vehicle (including cars and RVs) for shelter.  This afternoon, O’Brien did just that.

O’Brien actually announced two proposed bills: a resolution and an ordinance. Both are based on the recommendations from the Vehicular Living Workgroup, which O’Brien convened in Match and which presented its nine recommendations to the Council yesterday afternoon.

The resolution is intended to be the Council’s formal response to the workgroup recommendations. It commits the  city to:

  • Design and implement a community needs assessment focused on vehicular residences to develop a profile and description of people living in their vehicles as well as define their current service needs.
  • Formalize diversion mechanisms for vehicular residents from regulatory parking enforcement actions.
  • Expand outreach and case management services to increase social support, connections to services, and pathways to permanent housing for people living in their vehicles by providing HSD appropriations to contract four outreach workers and eight
    case managers.
  • Create a robust safe parking program with capacity ranging from 200 to 500 vehicles and their inhabitant by securing 30 to 50 parking locations ( a combination of public and private properties) throughout the City.  Amenities will be provided at the sites, including “restroom facilities, electricity, and garbage service plus periodic access to shower and laundry facilities.” This year’s One Night Count found that there were around 1,500 people living in over 900 vehicles in Seattle.
  • Establish a second Navigation Team focused on homeless people living in vehicles. The resources would come out of the 200 additional police officer positions the Mayor has committed to create.
  • Studying several other issues, including options for increasing healthcare access for people living in vehicles, and creating an auto-maintenance skills training program for people living in their vehicles.

The ordinance, on the other hand, has one purpose: to create a “diversion program” for people living in vehicles that are being parked on city streets so that they don’t accumulate expensive parking tickets and eventually get impounded under the city’s scofflaw law.

The ordinance would direct SPD and the Human Services Department (HSD) to create a Vehicular Residence Program, through which people living in vehicles can register them with the city. The city would use that information to ensure that those individuals are connected with services to help them to exit homelessness, and to track the vehicles and their inhabitants. In return, users of those vehicles would be “deprioritized” for parking citations, addition to the scofflaw list, immobilization, and impoundment. Instead, they would be “diverted to an alternative enforcement action through their participation in the Vehicular Residences Program.”

Some notes on the ordinance:

  • It only applies to public property. A vehicle parked without permission on private property is still subject to removal by the property owner.
  • RVs and commercial vehicles (such as decommissioned school buses) would only be allowed to park in commercial areas.
  • The police may still impound a vehicle “that interferes with intended uses of rights-of-way or poses an immediate danger to the public.”
  • SPD may still ask the occupants of a vehicular residence to move on from a particular location, but no more frequently than once a week.
  • SPD still has authority for “enforcing impoundment laws to address criminal conduct or otherwise maintain public safety. The Seattle Police Department, Fire Department and other first
    responders shall respond appropriately to emergency situations, such as fires, crimes, or medical crises and shall cooperate with other public safety agencies in accordance with operative mutual
    aid agreements.” That also includes enforcement of laws on littering, noise, and creating public nuisances.
  • The ordinance says nothing about what participants in the Vehicular Residences Program will be required to do in return for avoiding traditional parking enforcement mechanisms. It merely says, “The Director of the Human Services Department in consultation with the Chief of Police shall promulgate by rule making programmatic requirements for users of vehicular
    residences to participate in the Vehicular Residences Program.” Leaving it completely up to HSD and SPD is a huge hole in the specification of the program.

In his press release today, O’Brien said, “In currently allowing vehicle residents to continue to accrue parking and impoundment fines, we only exacerbate their challenges in a pathway to housing. If someone is willing to work with a service provider and is committed to stabilizing their living situation, I think we should enthusiastically try to meet that need.”  That’s certainly true; citing homeless people for being homeless and not having a place to park their car impedes their ability to stabilize their lives and get on a better track.

O’Brien also states, “This legislation is a starting point, and I don’t intend to introduce or consider this bill in August.  I’m very receptive to any ideas to improve this legislation or to entirely new solutions.” That’s good, because this bill is definitely not ready for prime time. It’s all well and good that O’Brien wants to divert people who are “committed to stabilizing their living situation,” but without actually specifying what that commitment entails, this bill is simply a loosening of existing laws without any assurance that it will meaningfully engage people with services to help them.

That said, there has been a lot of scaremongering this week that O’Brien is pushing to open the entire city up to vehicle camping, and that it will attract people to the city who just want to live in their cars. That’s nonsense. There is zero evidence that there are people out there who just want to live in their cars. There may be some who want to live in an RV, but O’Brien’s proposal restricts those to commercial lots. In either case, living in a vehicle parked on a city street, without amenities, will continue to be a cold and dangerous way to spend the winter in Seattle.

There is no timeline for formally introducing the legislation, or for moving it through the City Council’s legislative process.

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