Back in June, Mayor Durkan announced that she would be transmitting to the City Council a bill that prohibits the renting of “hazardous vehicles” to vulnerable individuals as shelter. Today that bill had its first hearing in front of a Council committee, and it did not go well.
Let’s just be clear up front: this is a bad bill, and it deserved to have a bad day. There are three different kinds of bad bills:
- Bills with bad intent;
- Bills with good intent but are poorly researched and attempt to implement dubious or bad policy choices;
- Bills with good intent that are drafted poorly (i.e the devil is in the details).
The Mayor’s bill is a combination of #2 and #3.
As became clear in the hearing today, the city hasn’t done its research on the problem; anecdotally, it knows of 2-5 “RV ranchers” who are buying up RVs in terrible condition that the city has paid a private company to tow away, and then renting them out to people who would otherwise be homeless. It has no idea how many RV’s in total the ranchers have on Seattle’s streets, but it wants to stop the practice and provide a strong disincentive to others who might consider joining in. It considers the vulnerable people who rent these RVs to be victims, and it has no interest in prosecuting them — in fact, city officials said this morning that they would only intercede with the blessing of a victim.
The city became aware of the existence of “RV ranching” through its RV remediation pilot program, which performs cleanups around RVs that people are occupying on Seattle’s streets. SPU officials said that they have encountered four categories of safety hazards:
- inadequate sanitation;
- fire hazards;
- environmental hazards;
- inadequate protection from weather (e.g. holes in the roof and/or walls).
They saw infestations of rodents, insects and other pests; mold; lack of properly working RV sewer systems, no running water or working bathroom, biohazards, and RVs that were inoperable. City staff provided a presentation to the Council with photographs of the state of some of these RVs.
The city equates the “RV ranchers” to slumlords.
From a policy perspective, where this gets tricky is what happens to the people who are currently living in inhumane conditions in these RV’s, since the city’s enhanced shelters and “tiny home” villages are near or at capacity.
(Tess Colby of the Mayor’s office clarified that notion this morning, drawing a distinction between “utilization rate” and availability of beds; she said that there are beds available nearly every night, but they are getting filled every night as well so the utilization rate of the shelter space is almost 100% — something they like to see)
The bill’s intent is to stop the practice of renting out extremely damaged RVs, not to harm vulnerable people. But ensuring they aren’t harmed is harder than it looks, when the city doesn’t necessarily have an acceptable alternative place for them to go. The RV someone is living in may be horrible, but living in a tent on the street may be even worse.
So here’s what the Mayor’s bill does. It defines a category of “extremely damaged” vehicle as one that meets at least two of the following five conditions:
- It has a broken window or windshield and/or missing wheels or tires;
- It is apparently inoperable;
- It has inadequate sanitation to the extent that occupants or the general public are directly exposed to the risk of illness or injury;
- It creates a health, fire or safety hazard;
- It has inadequate protection to the extent that occupants are exposed to the weather.
It then declares:
No person shall allow another natural person to occupy any motor vehicle (or recreational vehicle, as defined in Section 22.904.010 for purposes of this Chapter 11.75) located on a street or alley open to the public, or on municipal or other public property, that is extensively damaged.
The first violation is a civil infraction carrying a $250 penalty. Further violations are misdemeanors. Each day the violation continues is a separate offense. RV ranchers would also be liable to pay restitution to their renters up to $2000 for relocation expenses.
We can quibble about how extensive damage needs to be to an RV to make it uninhabitable; let’s save that for another day. The real problem is in the phrasing of “No person shall allow another person…” That is far broader than just RV ranchers, and raises red flags. It could potentially mean someone who owns and lives in a beat-up RV on the street who lets someone else, possibly a partner, spouse or dependent, stay with them rent-free. The city says that’s not the intent, but nevertheless that’s the effect of the poor drafting.
Compound that by noting that this City Council is hounded by critics of its response to the homeless crisis; any time the issue of homelessness is raised, the Council members jump to full red alert. And the City Council has, in turn, criticized the Mayor for refocusing the Navigation Team on cleanups of obstruction and hazard encampments rather than outreach. The relationship between the Council and the Mayor has been lees-than-cordial for the past few months across a number of issues, and both sides have seized upon opportunities to take shots at the other. Now pour gasoline on that dumpster-fire by proposing legislation that looks like it would displace some people living in RVs and put them back out on the street, and add the extra attention generated by a Seattle Times in-depth look at RV ranching in Seattle published earlier this week. That was the setup for the Council hearing this morning.
Bad bills get introduced fairly regularly in City Hall. All the Council members and their staff do it sometimes: it’s usually a case of poor drafting, and less frequently it’s good intent but poor research and policy. Both Council members Mosqueda and O’Brien have been guilty of this several times in their time on the Council, and they know how this works: the bills with substantial policy issues tend to get sent back for weeks of rework, and the poorly-drafted bills get fixed through technical and substantive amendments. Nevertheless, Mosqueda and O’Brien (particularly Mosqueda) jumped on the chance to beat up the city staff who showed up this morning to brief the Council.
A year ago, this morning’s hearing would not have happened; the necessary discussions would have taken place behind closed doors (mostly between staff members), feedback would have been given, the issues would have been documented, and the bill would have been rewritten — perhaps even before it was submitted for the Council’s consideration. The fact that the hearing happened at all points to the current breakdown in both communication and civility between the second and seventh floors in City Hall. Both sides assume the worst from each other and are quick to criticize — often to score political points. The result is that they are losing their ability to get stuff done, even when they agree on basic notions such as “RV ranchers are predators and should be stopped.” Yes, the Mayor and her staff wrote a bad bill. It doesn’t require a public hearing (and a public thrashing) to clarify the intent and fix the bill. In fact, they already had a memo written by the Council’s central staff that lays out the issues before they even walked into the room this morning.
Now that the political theater has played out for the moment, the Mayor’s and Council’s staff will undoubtedly get to work and the bill will get fixed. The phrase “No person shall allow another natural person” will get rewritten to focus it on RV ranchers, whether they are charging rent or extracting other, less savory, forms of compensation for the right to occupy a dilapidated RV. The threshold for “extensively damaged” will probably be adjusted. And the city will probbaly commit to providing a meaningful offer of services (including alternative housing) to the occupants, just as it is required to do with “sweeps” of homeless encampments, as part of stopping an RV rancher from renting out an uninhabitable vehicle.
It’s been a long, exhausting, politically painful week in Seattle. The Council’s two-week August recess can’t start soon enough.