Seattle councilman wants to spread dozens of homeless RV lots all over city; here's what to know

by: KIRO 7 News Staff Updated:

SEATTLE - Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien unveiled draft legislation that would loosen parking enforcement for homeless people who live in vehicles – and spread dozens of homeless RV lots across the city.
 
Below is a questions-and-answers section that breaks-down the new draft legislation released on Thursday. 
O'Brien's draft has not been finalized or introduced to the city council. 
 

What would O’Brien’s law allow?

This legislation would largely exempt some vehicles used as housing from being towed or impounded when parked on city streets. 

His plan would also create 30-to-50 RV “safe lots” throughout Seattle on un-used city property and private property where owners agree to host.  

“The idea is that the RVs would be dispersed geographically throughout the city,” O’Brien said, although he couldn’t identify specific locations.

There are three pieces of documents on this: a work group memo with nine recommendations for solutions, a resolution that asks the city to do an analysis on city-sanctioned RV parking lots, and draft legislation that would set up a "vehicular living program."

O’Brien said in the YouTube video earlier in the week that people would have to meet certain qualifications for the program. In a news release on Thursday, the councilman expanded on that.

He said that for people living out of cars and minivans would have to participate in the program to be exempt from booting and impoundment. As for people living in RVs or commercial vehicles, they would have to be in "parked industrial zones." 

Where those zones will be located was not released to KIRO 7 News on Thursday. 

Why does O’Brien and his team want this?

O'Brien wrote in a statement that the number of people living in vehicles nearly doubled over the last several years from 590 individuals in 2010 to 1,550 in 2017.

The councilman believes that the city's current approach to what he calls "vehicular residency" often results in fines that put people farther away from permanent housing. 

“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,” he said.

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

O'Brien created a work group to look into ideas for his draft legislation, and he calls that draft a “starting point.” The bill may not be considered until September. 

What are some of the solutions listed in the work group memo? 

The work group provided nine recommendations that they believe would improve the health and safety of all residents of Seattle and the people living in vehicles. 
 
 
One of the solutions addressed what the group called inadequate health care access and issues around permanent housing. 
 

Does it include more city-sanctioned RV lots? 

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.  

O'Brien's work group 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.”

What does this mean for police enforcing the law? 

O'Brien sent this in a news release: "Police would still have every right to arrest people for breaking laws, including sexual exploitation. Nothing would prevent SPD or a social service provider from asking a vehicle to move and assisting them to move their vehicle."

How much would this cost?

O’Brien didn’t have specifics today, but expects it to take “millions” of dollars.

Who is this work group? 

O’Brien's work group included advocacy groups, homeless task forces, and attorneys that provided recommendations to the councilman’s team before the draft was completed.
 

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.

>> Read about the case here

Yurij Rudensky of Columbia Legal Services 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.”

What does opposition say?

Seattle city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay posted what he says is a copy of the proposed ordinance.

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

He called the legislation alarming. 

“The bill would exempt vehicles used as residences from almost all vehicle safety laws and parking restrictions,” Lindsay warns. “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.”

Lindsay told KIRO 7 he's lobbying against O’Brien’s ordinance because he thinks it’s financially flawed.

“Investing in significant programs that keep them in their vehicles is the wrong direction,” Lindsay said.  “It’s the most ineffective and expensive way to actually get services to people," he said.         

Have police documented problems in Seattle motor homes, sanctioned or not?

Yes. One of the most significant incidents was in Ballard, when a woman was stabbed to death in the 900 block of Northwest Leary Way.

>> Related: Police investigating after woman killed in Ballard

It was one of the 12 homicides in Seattle this year.

What about the RV lots now?

As stated above, the current only sanction RV lot is in the SODO neighborhood. 

File photo from SODO lot

KIRO 7 News talked to Bill Kaczmarek's of Seattle Textile, which is a company that’s been a neighbor of the lot for a year. Kaczmarek' hasn't had theft issues, but he has called police over a domestic violence issue.

“We were promised when these people moved in that it was only temporary and every one of them had a caseworker and they were working diligently to get them a job,” he said. “Obviously things are not going right, and just adding more homeless people to the streets is not the solution.”

What happened to the other sanctioned lots?

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray issued a homelessness-emergency order in January 2016 to open two sites – in Ballard and Delridge – for people living in vehicles.

After the Ballard lot opened with a capacity of 20 vehicles – running the city about $1,750 a vehicle, Murray canceled plans for the Delridge lot.

Has this O'Brien's draft been introduced to council?

No. It's only a draft.

O'Brien put legislation in front of a council committee on Wednesday, but it was just for discussion and public comment. 

No decision was made on Wednesday, and a vote by the full council may not happen until the fall. 
 

Seattle’s ongoing battle with the homeless crisis

The City of Seattle declared a civil state of emergency in 2015.  According to a 2017 point-in-time count, around 3,800 individuals experience homelessness without shelter. 

Of those people, about 900 people or more lived in vehicles in Seattle.

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 of a homeless camp under West Seattle Bridge.

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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