If you want to make small talk in Seattle, there are three good places to start: A sports team, the weather and parking.
Whether it’s a headline about the “War On Cars” or a neighborhood meeting about restrictive parking zones, parking has long been a major gripe for folks in this city. Despite dense and highly walkable neighborhoods (and our reputation for being green), our town still relies on cars.
Our most vulnerable populations rely on vehicles, too, but in a different way. And for those who live in their cars, the punitive nature of parking enforcement can trap them in a cycle of poverty and escalating criminality.
Paid parking ranges from $1 to $4 per hour. At a time when the lowest minimum wage is $11 in the city limits, $8 for two hours is extremely cost-prohibitive. But most people who live in their cars avoid paid parking altogether, opting for streets that aren’t metered — and often aren’t especially well-lit or safe.
These areas are also typically far away from waste disposal, restrooms or other necessary services, leading residents to make unpleasant decisions and neighbors to complain about it.
Even when a person finds parking that seems reasonably safe, they know it’s temporary. Per the Seattle Municipal Code, “vehicles must still be moved to a different block every 72 hours,” even if there are no posted signs. Four unpaid parking tickets (at $40 to $60 apiece) and a vehicle may be booted; to get the boot off, car owners have to pay $145 and all of their unpaid tickets.
And if the vehicle can’t be moved because it’s nonfunctioning, it’s likely to be towed (sometimes without warning). That was the case for Steven Long, who filed a motion against the city. Long’s truck was parked for months in the same spot without incident, according to Crosscut. Then one day, it was gone, leaving him out in the cold. The city’s attorney said all he had to do was move it a block. Long said the vehicle couldn’t be moved.
Vehicles are towed at the owner’s expense. If your vehicle is impounded, it’ll cost you at least $112, plus towing fees. And again, you need to be able to drive it away.
The faith community has stepped up to help fill the gap; many churches allow people living in their vehicles to park for free.
The city tried to venture into sanctioned lots, as well, though the experiment wasn’t executed particularly well.
There’s no easy answer — other than maybe giving people a break when it’s clear that they live in their vehicle — but when those of us who live inside complain about parking, it’s good to remember that for us, it’s just an inconvenience.
Access Denied appears monthly in Real Change. Hanna Brooks Olsen's work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Salon, Fast Company and VICE.