Seattle City Council member Mike OBrien has repeatedly tried to create programs for people living in vehicles.
Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien tried to create a diversion program for people living in vehicles. City of Seattle

Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien says a recent court ruling shows Seattle has “frankly dropped the ball on coming up with proactive solutions [for] people that are living in vehicles."

A King County Superior Court judge ruled against the city earlier this month, saying that when people are living in vehicles and the city tows those vehicles for illegal parking, city authorities must consider whether the fines they charge to retrieve the vehicle are unconstitutionally high. The city is appealing the decision.

The case arose after the city towed a truck a homeless man named Steven Long was living in, then asked Long to pay more than $500 to get the truck back. The judge ruled that while the towing may have been constitutional, the fines were unconstitutionally high. She also found that Long's truck was serving as his home under the state Homestead Act, calling into question whether tow companies can sell vehicles being used as homes if the owners don't (or can't) pay the fines.

O'Brien weighed in on the ruling Thursday on KUOW.

"The city should actually have policies in place that acknowledge that people living in their vehicles have certain rights to their home," O'Brien said.

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness have long pointed out that while the city has sanctioned encampments for tents, it offers few options for people living in vehicles. Without somewhere to park, they are subject to the city's rule requiring drivers to move vehicles every 72 hours.

Last year, O'Brien proposed legislation to create a diversion program. That program would have exempted people living in vehicles from paying tickets or having their vehicles booted or towed for one year if they enrolled in a program to connect them to social services. The idea didn't gain traction among his council colleagues and never came up for a vote.

Support The Stranger

Before that, former mayor Ed Murray's administration opened a "safe lot" for people living in vehicles but that proved too expensive. O'Brien points out those lots were so expensive because, rather than just offering a place to park without being ticketed, they also featured things like electricity and staff on site. A diversion program would be cheaper while also helping people avoid towing, he argues.

A one-night count last year found about 11,600 people experiencing homelessness across King County, 20 percent of them living in vehicles.

“The reality today is that there are thousands of people outdoors and tomorrow I’m not going to have all the housing I need, so we do have to have some interim measures," O'Brien said on KUOW. "The embarrassing part for me is that as a city we have no plan, and we need to come up with a plan."