Earlier this week, the City Council had another committee hearing on the Mayor’s proposed ordinance to curb “RV Ranching,” predatory renting of RV’s and other vehicles in poor condition to homeless people.
The second conversation went better than the first one last week, and the issues are becoming clearer.
The discussion, which was calmer and more reasoned, revolved around three general topics: the size and scope of the problem; the law that applies (and the need for new legislation); and the policy issues to be worked out.
Council staff presented some updated numbers of the extent of the “RV ranching” problem. According to a document produced by Seattle Public Utilities on behalf of the several city departments that are part of the RV Remediation Program:
- There are at least ten individuals identified by the city and Lincoln Towing who are linked to multiple vehicles that were towed and disposed of in 2017 and 2018. Of them, 5 currently have at least 38 active vehicles registered in their names. In the past, some have had over 30 vehicles registered just in their own individual name.
- The city is also aware of other predatory landlords operating no more than 1-2 vehicles at any given time. Those are generally concentrated in the Gerogetown and SOHO areas.
- The document provides more details about four suspects, one whose operation in the Ballard and Lake City areas is colloquially referred to as “Rick’s Rentals.” Another illegally towed a dozen RVs onto state property in 2017 and set up an unsanctioned “safe lot” known as “Camp Sanctuary.”
The legal issues around RV ranching are complex, but point to a gap in the laws already on the books that is preventing meaningful crackdown on the practice. According to the city:
- The land use code does not apply, because an RV is not considered a “dwelling unit.” That applies to rented RVs too.
- The building code for single-family homes only applies to homes with a permanent foundation.
- The building code for mobile homes excludes RVs as temporary living quarters for recreation or travel purposes.
- If someone is renting out an RV as a dwelling unit on private premises, then SDCI can inspect it and assess fines — but not when the vehicle is in the public right-of-way, e.g. parked on the side of a road.
- Rules for rental cars generally apply to vehicles that are being rented for less than 30 days.
- Vehicle regulations don’t envision someone living in the vehicle, so they are limited to citations and fines for faulty equipment.
- City staff are still researching whether “lemon laws” might apply.
- RV ranchers are generally not operating with a business license, which is itself illegal but precludes using the business license as an enforcement mechanism.
- RV ranchers who were banned from Lincoln Towing’s auctions found proxies to attend and purchase vehicles in their place.
- Parking enforcement laws can remove the vehicles from the streets, but then simply feeds the revolving door (RV ranchers place them on the street and rent them out; Lincoln Towing tows them on behalf of the city, then auctions them off as abandoned vehicles; RV ranchers buy them back and recycle them back onto the street).
- The city has stepped up its efforts to pull out of circulation “severely damaged” vehicles that are part of this revolving door. It is now certifying more towed RVs as “junk” vehicles that should not be released. It costs the city $2000 per vehicle to do so and have it disposed of, but it is removing them from circulation. Before the new effort, the city estimates that about half of the vehicles being towed were going back into circulation.
- Currently FAS is allowing former occupants of a towed vehicle to be escorted in to recover their personal possessions, but there is no statute or ordinance specifically ordaining or regulating that process.
- The bill would allow displaced renters who are the victims of predatory RV landlords to seek restitution for their relocation costs, up to $2000. However, it is a process that takes time, and the victims may not meet the documentation burden if they are renting the vehicle “off the books.” Also, $2000 is a small amount compared to the restutition allowed under the city’s rental housing laws.
And that brings us to the policy issues:
- Should the city condone renting out RVs and other vehicles for homeless people to occupy if the vehicles are kept in good condition? There is a split opinion between the Mayor and at least some of the City Council on this. The Mayor’s Office is against “normalizing” the practice, whereas Council members Bagshaw, O’Brien and Mosqueda expressed a view that for at least some homeless people it’s an improvement over a tent or living outside — and as long as the city’s enhanced shelters, “tiny home” villages, and other housing options are at capacity, they are hesitant to cut off this option.
- Along those lines: if cracking down on the practice of “RV ranching” displaces occupants from unsafe vehicles and puts them back onto the street, then who is benefitting from the crackdown? Surely not the occupants, who lose even a minimal amount of shelter and the ability to secure their possessions. To the extent that the occupants who have been victimized by the RV ranchers are supportive of a crackdown, the Council members felt better about it, and the Mayor’s Office has offered assurances that it only wants to proceed with the cooperation of occupants. But it raises the same policy issue as “sweeps” of unsanctioned encampments that are creating obstructions and public health or public safety hazards: balancing the desire to not destabilize homeless people by pushing them from place to place, against the need to effectively deal with the public health and public safety hazards created by the encampments (or dilapidated RVs, in this case).
- Training for city employees. What training should the city employees enforcing any new laws have? SDCI’s staff dealing with substandard housing are extensively trained on a number of subjects, and are well versed in the resources that are available to help tenants. What training do the SPU, SPD, SDOT, and other city employees need, and to what extent should HSD and the Office of Housing be involved to help the victims of predatory RV landlords?
- How does the city ensure that the victims themselves aren’t ensnared by any new legislation? As the draft legislation is written today, if the renter of a substandard RV invites a friend or partner to share it, then the renter is also in violation of the ordinance for “allowing” someone to live in such conditions.
- And finally, the big issue: getting more and better places for homeless people to stay so that squalid vehicles are no longer an attractive option. Council member O’Brien suggested in the hearing that the best way to put the RV ranchers out of business is to provider better options for their victims. That means more affordable housing, more programs to transition homeless people off the streets, and more enhanced shelters. And since there are thousands of people living on King County’s streets in vehicles that they own — often their last significant possession — convincing them to stay in a shelter instead of their vehicle will require providing a place for them to park their vehicle.
Even though the city still has more questions than answers (and Council member Mosqueda questioned whether this ordinance was needed at all), at least having clarity on the legal and policy issues is progress. Council member Bagshaw, in whose committee the bill is being considered, has not set a timeline for moving it forward, but offered instead, “We’re going to work on this jointly until we get it right.”
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