Directors on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board spent hours Tuesday listening to homeless advocates comment on the agency’s plan to restart towing enforcement in the coming weeks.

In response to the pandemic, the agency suspended some of its ticketing and towing policies in March 2020, but staff told directors Tuesday that it plans start towing vehicles left parked on public streets for 72 hours. That enforcement will begin again on May 17. As of June 21, the agency will also tow vehicles with expired registration and those belonging to owners who have failed to pay prior citations.

Advocates urged the agency to permanently end what they call “poverty tows” and to stop issuing fines to them as they are most likely unable to pay them.

Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness who has been coming to the SFMTA board meetings for years to speak on the issue of poverty tows, warned that more people will be at risk of homelessness when The City’s eviction moratorium ends.

Cutler said:

“When they lose vehicles and their home, they end up having to sleep hard on the ground with no protection and puts people in … danger.”

Agency staff said the specific enforcement policies they plan to resume in the next few weeks made up 17 percent of all tows in fiscal year 2019. People can expect to pay upwards of $500 if their vehicle is towed, which includes administrative and tow fees. Additional storage fees are applied if the vehicle is left in impound for more than four hours. 

The agency offers an administrative fee waiver and tow fee reduction if the vehicle owner participates in an  eligible low-income program like Medi-Cal or the agency’s own Lifeline program. Low-income vehicle owners may also have up to 15 days of storage fees waived and cost reduced for boot removal.

Payment plans and a community service program are also available for those who need help paying off citations.

Individuals living in vehicles may apply for a one-time waiver of administrative and towing fees, and to have storage fees waived for up to 15 days. In that case, the boot removal is also free of charge. Individuals must have visited one of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing coordinated entry points in the past six months to be eligible for those waivers.

Anne Stuhldreher, director of The City’s Financial Justice Project housed in the Office of the Treasurer, said her group has worked closely with the SFMTA and advocates to reform many fines and fees that disproportionately affect people of color.

Stuhldreher said the agency has accomplished a lot in the past three years to balance the scales, offering discounts and waivers to individuals who are unable afford to pay fees and fines. However, she acknowledged that The City needs to take further action and identify solutions to prevent the towing of people’s homes.

She said:

“I want to encourage the board of directors and MTA staff to continue to lean into this process of open dialogue, creative solutions, and listening to people in the community. The best solutions come from people who are closest to the problem.”

The plan to resume towing enforcement was an informational item at the board meeting and not a vote taken by directors. SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin told directors that towing is a necessary tool, especially in districts 10 and 11.

Citywide towing enforcement was eliminated under Tumlin’s authority, which he said caused problems the agency is now struggling to fix. While he wants enforcement to resume, he told directors that the towing program will not be what it was before the pandemic struck, adding:

“What I am doing now is using my director’s authority to not bring back the pre-COVID policy, but to bring back a much smaller, more compassionate, modest program with a whole array of waivers.”

Staff presented a slew of changes that directors will vote on next month. For those enforcement categories set to resume in May and June, agency staff recommended use of warning notices for vehicles with four or more citations and a one-time waiver of all outstanding citations for people experiencing homelessness. They also suggested a revision to notices that would include payment assistance resources.

Staff planned to present further details in the fall, but directors demanded they return in three months and consider tow policy changes related to the 72-hour limit, delinquent citations and expired registration.

Director Manny Yekutiel said the agency needs to identify solutions that address legitimate public safety concerns while also protecting city residents who live in vehicles.

He said:

“We want to see real solutions to this issue that are not being presented to us today and we want to see it in an expeditious way.”

Jerold Chinn
Jerold Chinn is the San Francisco Bureau Chief of SFBay. A San Francisco native, he has spent a decade covering transportation in San Francisco. Send tips to jerold@sfbay.ca or at Twitter @Jerold_Chinn.

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