Proposed Ordinance Creating Special Exemptions from Safety and Parking Laws for Residential Vehicles Is Step in the Wrong Direction

I recently received a copy of a proposed ordinance that will be introduced by Councilmember Mike O’Brien in Seattle City Council this week. The bill would exempt vehicles used as residences from almost all vehicle safety laws and parking restrictions. As a candidate for Seattle City Attorney who previously worked as the head of the Navigation Team to help people living in encampments and vehicles transition to safer alternatives, I think it is important for the public to be fully informed on this legislation.

As drafted, this proposed ordinance is a major step in the wrong direction.

In short, the bill says that if a vehicle is potentially being used as a residence then it is exempt from enforcement of the city’s safety codes (e.g., prohibitions on junk vehicles that are not street safe, oversize vehicles parked on neighborhood streets, etc.) and most of the city’s parking restrictions (e.g., 2-hour parking limit, commercial load zone, etc.).

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. Here is the text of the proposed ordinance exempting residential vehicles used in the crime of sexual exploitation:

 

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And here is the section of the Seattle Municipal Code that is referenced:

 

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The net effect of the legislation would be to make residential vehicles beyond the law. That will not help vehicle residents get into shelter faster, will not keep them safe in their vehicles, and would have a dramatic impact on the landscape of neighborhoods across the city.    

Councilmember O’Brien has laid out a plan for the bill to be considered in his Transportation Committee on Tuesday, August 15 and then voted out of his Committee to the full Council on September 8.

Seattle needs to do much more to address the homelessness and addiction crises gripping our streets. That should mean investing in compassionate programs that work, not those that have already failed. Seattle previously piloted safe lots for those living in their vehicles. According to the Human Services Department, the cost of that program (including porta potties, water, and case management) was almost $2,000 per vehicle per month – in other words, it costs as much to responsibly support someone in their vehicle outside as it does to get them into traditional housing. And, unfortunately, few people transitioned to safer shelter during that pilot program. 

We can do better.  

Here are more details on the bill.

The bill exempts vehicles used as a ‘dwelling place’ from almost all parking restrictions and enforcement provisions of the Seattle Municipal Code. 

Vehicular Residence Defined – any one of the following vehicles used as a dwelling place: 

  • Passenger vehicle
  • Commercial vehicle
  • Junk motor vehicle (vehicle that is unsafe for operation on city streets)
  • Private carrier bus
  • School bus
  • Shuttle bus
  • Sightseeing or charter bus
  • Motor vehicle with camper
  • Motor home (RV)

Vehicular Residences Exempt from Safety Laws --

  • No enforcement for vehicle residence that is defined as a “junk vehicle” – unsafe for operation on city streets
  • No enforcement for vehicle residence used in the commission of a crime of sexual exploitation
  • No enforcement for missing license plates or tabs expired greater than 45 days
  • No enforcement for vehicle residence with four or more unpaid tickets

Vehicular Residences Exempt from Parking Restrictions --

  • No enforcement for parking overtime (e.g., expired meter, 2-hour time limit, or 72 hour restriction)
  • No enforcement for parking in a restricted zone (e.g., commercial zone or load zone)
  • No enforcement for having expired tabs/improper plates