Attorney who challenged Seattle helped with recommendations to loosen RV towing regulations

by: Ashli Blow, KIRO 7 News Updated:

SEATTLE, - An attorney, who defended a homeless man against city police officers for violating rights by impounding his vehicle, was invited to participate in a work group to recommend policies that could loosen RV regulations in Seattle.

Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien’s draft legislation would largely exempt vehicles used as housing from being towed or impounded, even on neighborhood streets. The draft legislation, which hasn’t even been completed into a final draft, was discussed Wednesday in a council committee.

The attorney, Yurij Rudensky of Columbia Legal Services, did not draft the legislation. He was part of an O’Brien-organized work group of advocacy groups, homeless task forces, and attorneys that provided recommendations to the councilman’s team before the draft was completed.

A recent count in Seattle estimated that about 900 people or more lived in vehicles in Seattle, a third of the city’s homeless population.

About the earlier court motion

Regarding a homeless man's infraction earlier this year, Rudensky told KIRO 7 News that police were on an unrelated call in Sodo when they saw a 2000 GMC truck in a public right-of-way. Officers gave truck owner, Steven Long, a 72-hour notice to move, which is required by city law.

When long returned from working a janitorial job at CenturyLink Field that day, he saw the notice. But in fear that his vehicle was inoperable, Rudensky said Long kept it parked.

“[Our law firm] was approached by the client [Long]. He was distraught, lost his vehicle, and heard we were involved with policy discussion and wanted to bring this circumstance,” Rudensky said. “These penalties are excessive to the circumstances.”

Homeless RVs line a street in Ballard. (Dyer Oxley, MyNorthwest)

>> Related: Looser RV camping regulations? Seattle councilman's draft legislation could do that

Long, who has a caseworker and some employment in the SODO area, now lives under a tarp at the same place his vehicle was towed, according to Rudensky. He’s racked up nearly $900 in fees he couldn't pay.

Together, Rudensky and Long worked toward getting the citation tossed and towing fees returned this spring. At the time, Rudensky told The Seattle Times that a favorable ruling would force the city to review its policies surrounding impounding vehicles.

But a judge rejected their case. The defense motion is now up for an appeal in superior court this winter.

O’Brien’s draft ordinance and the case

When asked if an ordinance like O’Brien’s would help Long’s case, Rudensky did not provide a direct answer and reiterated that he only worked on recommendations for the ordinance – and was not part of the legislative staff who wrote the draft. He told KIRO 7 that he hadn’t even seen the complete draft.

Rudensky also said that O’Brien contacted him to be the “Vehicular Living Workgroup,” and he agreed to join the 12-person work group.

“The idea is to address some of these issues to regulate streets,” Rudensky said. “No one is saying that shouldn’t be the case, but in the terms of how that happens ... it’s just that’s where some solutions are needed in response to the unique situation of someone living a vehicle.”

Candidate posts O’Brien’s draft ordinance

O’Brien’s draft came to light when Scott Lindsay, a candidate for Seattle City Attorney, posted what he called a copy of the proposed ordinance on his campaign website.

Lindsay worked for Murray as a public safety advisor for three years, and he led sweeps on homeless encampments. He called the legislation alarming.

>> Related: Two RVs gutted in fire under West Seattle Bridge

“The bill would exempt vehicles used as residences from almost all vehicle safety laws and parking restrictions,” Lindsay said. “Shockingly, the bill would also exempt from impoundment residential vehicles that are used in the commission of a crime of sexual exploitation – a critical law enforcement tool used to deter pimps and johns from taking advantage of the most vulnerable.”

Commenters on the KIRO 7 News Facebook page left similar sentiments on our initial story about the draft, and others called for better permanent housing solutions.

O’Brien explains his draft

O’Brien turned to YouTube to offer a clarification, despite he usually doesn’t talk about drafted legislation.

“For the city to have a program that continually tickets, tickets, tows, impounds, confiscates their vehicles – it makes the situation worse for everybody,” he said.

Watch part of O'Brien's video below, scroll down to keep reading. 

According to the draft legislation, RVs or vehicles being used as living spaces outside of the sanctioned lot would largely be exempt from city parking restrictions, even on neighborhood streets.

In the work group recommendations memo obtained by KIRO 7 News, several solutions are given to address outreach and services around people who live in vehicles.

>> Related: Magnolia gym owner: RV concerns are ‘falling on deaf ears'

One of the solutions addressed what the group called inadequate health care access and issues around permanent housing. The recommendations also suggest to develop RV living campgrounds, which is something similar the city implemented last year with two lots. 

Now, Seattle only has one sanctioned RV lot in Sodo, which the city calls a “safe lot.” Seattle Human Services Department told KIRO 7 News last year about the lots, saying the costs ran about $35,000 a month to operate it.  

>> Related: Seattle spends more than $130K on RV homeless sites, places 1 in housing

The memo notes that “safe lots” were an ineffective allocation of funding, and it mentions that with only one remaining lot – there’s a “calls for a real need in funding, programming, and policy direction to specifically address vehicular living and associated challenges.”

O’Brien said in the YouTube video that people would have to meet certain qualifications for the vehicular living program.

Seattle’s ongoing battle with the homeless crisis

This isn’t the first homeless rights violation argument in Seattle. In March, two homeless people and advocates filed a lawsuit against the city and the Washington Department of Transportation for violating constitutional rights of people living outside by seizing and throwing away their property.

Those women are among the nearly 4,000 people are experiencing homelessness without shelter in Seattle, according to the city. 

Over the years, Seattle has added more and more homeless programs to help combat an issue that is now considered by the city to be a crisis. But what after Mayor Ed Murray called a “pretty shocking” decade of patchwork performance, he mandated changes for homeless shelters and programs to now proves results if they want city funding.   

File photo from SODO lot

Murray said this effort was to help people connect with what they need to get them permanent house and shifts away from priorities of temporary hours.

Recently, the city started its Pathways Home program to address the issue or permanent housing, and it has resulted in increased response, investing in programs that work, and addressing racial disparities, according to the city’s website. The city will spend about $50 million total on homeless this year. Fifty percent of that goes to emergency response, 34 percent to permanent housing support, 9 percent to keep people in homes, and 7 percent on services.

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