Thousands of Californians Live in Cars. Will This Man’s Lawsuit Stop Cities From Impounding Them?

Sean Kayode says he watched his whole world roll away from him at 3:00 a.m. Kayode had been living in his car in San Francisco for about two years. During the early morning of March 5, traffic police towed and impounded his black 2005 Mercedes Benz — for having too many overdue parking tickets.

“I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and there was a guy behind me. And I’m like, ‘What are you doing behind my car?’” Kayode said while standing in the lobby of the Next Door homeless shelter in downtown San Francisco. “He says, ‘I’m just waiting for the tow truck to come get you.'”

For Kayode, who now lives at Next Door, his car wasn’t just a place to sleep, it was how he earned a living, he said, delivering food through Uber Eats. He shakes his head in disbelief at where he was, and where he is now.

“I am a homeless guy that worked my way out of homelessness,” Kayode said. “Bought my own car. Now you’ve taken my car, taken my job and now you’re giving me food stamps. It doesn’t make sense.”

Is it Unconstitutional to Impound a Car for Unpaid Tickets?

An estimated half million cars a year in California are impounded, unclaimed and sold, according to Jude Pond of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. He said many of those cars belonged to poor people living in them.

Pond helped file a lawsuit on Kayode’s behalf to challenge the California law that allows cities to tow a car away if that car has five or more overdue parking tickets. Many cities follow that policy, and Pond said it’s unconstitutional in several ways.

The government should not be allowed to take someone’s property without any notice and without a warrant, he said. That’s doubly true because these vehicles weren’t used in a crime, but were towed simply for financial reasons — just to collect fines.

Cities do not issue warnings, outside of the fine print on a parking ticket, that they’re coming to impound a vehicle. Parking officers just show up and take it away. And in the case of the homeless who live in their cars, city officials are taking their temporary home from them, which raises the stakes above the taking of a vehicle, Pond said.

“We’re hoping that this case sets the precedent that the city should not take people’s only asset — in this case their car — for the purpose of satisfying a debt, based on just outstanding parking tickets,” Pond said.

In San Francisco, officers towing a car with a homeless occupant will contact the police department and social services to help that person get services, according to Paul Rose, spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, who responded by email.

“There will be times when the [Homeless Outreach Team] will not be available to respond. If there is no urgency regarding the towing of the vehicle we will make an effort to delay the tow to allow services to respond,” Rose said. “We cannot completely avoid the removal of the vehicle as this would create an unintended exemption for vehicles that are in violation of city or state law.”

Sean Kayode, outside the Next Door homeless shelter in San Francisco on July 26, 2018. Kayode is suing the city, saying he lost his means of food-delivery employment and his home when his car was impounded in March — for having too many parking tickets.
Sean Kayode, outside the Next Door homeless shelter in San Francisco on July 26, 2018. Kayode is suing the city, saying he lost his means of food-delivery employment and his home when his car was impounded in March — for having too many parking tickets. (David Gorn/CALmatters)

A Tipping Point Toward Homelessness

Tens of thousands of Californians are living in their cars. Because losing those cars to impoundment can mean the loss of work and home, it can be a tipping point into a life on the streets.

For many people, having their car towed for overdue parking tickets is a major annoyance and life disruption. But for homeless people, it’s a permanent loss, because most of them cannot afford to recover their cars.

The costs escalate quickly.

Offenders must reimburse the tow charge, roughly $500. They also need to pay off their original tickets and the accrued fines on those tickets, which can be $1,000 or more. On top of all of that, it usually costs $71 for each day the car is stored at the tow yard.

In Kayode’s case, more than five months after his car was impounded, it would cost him more than $21,000 to get his car back.

That’s about $20,000 more than he paid for it.

Ostensibly, the city is towing the car to collect a debt, but in many cases where cars are unclaimed and eventually sold, the city doesn’t make much money on the sale, if anything. That’s because the tow yard has first dibs on any cash collected.

For the cities, though, it’s not about the money, according to UCLA political expert Zev Yaroslavsky.

“It’s the credibility of the restrictions,” Yaroslavsky said. “If the restrictions were not enforced, then no one would comply with them. The reason you and I rush out to the parking meter when it’s about to expire, to put another quarter in there, is because we don’t want to pay $80 for the privilege of having overstayed our welcome by a minute.”

The quickly escalating costs of having a vehicle impounded usually mean poor Californians can’t afford to get their cars back. Including original tickets, accrued fines and charges for towing and impounding, it would now cost Sean Kayode more than $21,000 to get his car back.
The quickly escalating costs of having a vehicle impounded usually mean poor Californians can’t afford to get their cars back. Including original tickets, accrued fines and charges for towing and impounding, it would now cost Sean Kayode more than $21,000 to get his car back. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Yaroslavsky spent four decades in local government in Los Angeles, most of it on the county Board of Supervisors. He said he understands why cities hold onto their impound power with both hands.

“As a local elected official I was never concerned about the revenue stream we were getting out of the parking,” Yaroslavsky said. “It was motivated by getting turnover in the limited parking spaces we had available at curbside.”

At the same time, he said, there has to be a middle ground when towing cars from the homeless.

“It makes absolutely no sense to take a homeless person’s car, confiscating it, impounding it. If you take away their car, they’re going to be on the street. That’s not a benefit to society. Common sense has to be in play.”

At the moment, though, the middle ground is hard to find.

Homeless advocates say cities could make exceptions for extremely low-income citizens — maybe let them hold onto the car, but pay off the tickets in installments.

Some cities, including San Francisco, have a payment-plan program — but nothing in place to return cars to the homeless or restrict impoundment of those cars in the first place.

A federal district court judge in San Francisco is expected to hear Kayode’s motion in September for a preliminary injunction to get his car back. A hearing on his lawsuit would be scheduled after a ruling on the injunction.

Of course, if the preliminary injunction is granted and San Francisco has to return Kayode’s car, he will still technically owe that $21,000 in parking, towing and storage fees until the case is decided.

Kayode, who has been homeless for the past six years, looks back on the incident and its aftermath with a mixture of anger and despair.

“If I have my car, I have my phone. That’s all I need. I can earn money,” Kayode said. “But right now, they are holding my car hostage. What I want to know is, does taking my car from me help the city budget in one way or another? Is my car going to make them or break them?”

He stops a moment, looks around the crowded and chaotic lobby of the homeless shelter he now calls home.

“I am back in the same hole,” Kayode said. “And I don’t have any way to get out.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the James Irvine Foundation and the College Futures Foundation.

What Do Renters Really Want?

 

What do renters really want? As property managers and other real estate professionals look for solutions to boost closing and retention rates, this question comes up all the time. Most industry experts agree that authentic, personalized customer service ranks high on the list. Happy customers who feel valued are more likely to stay in a relationship.

Considering that about 60 percent of renters move in planning to relocate within the next 12 months, “wowing” them at the closing is a great first step toward increasing retention rates. What else do renters want that your team isn’t giving them?

Ask Renters About Their Needs And Expectations

Did you know that research shows only 25 percent of apartment seekers who view a property are asked to sign the lease? If your leasing team isn’t confident they are offering a best-fit rental home for a prospect, why should the renter be motivated to take the next step? When you ask what amenities and community characteristics are most important – in-unit laundry equipment, pet-friendly policies, high-end appliances – they will tell you. Ask your current residents what they like most about their current living arrangement and what improvements would convince them to renew the lease when the time comes.

Provide Communication Options That Complement Renters Lifestyles

When surveying your current residents, make sure to use their preferred communication method. Does your team ask new residents if they prefer paper, email, text, or tenant portal notices and updates as part of the welcome home interview? You should.

Keep your survey simple. A form that is easy to fill out, and anonymous, will usually generate more returns, and more accurate responses.

Creating a pre-move-in questionnaire and a follow-up in a couple of months, allows you to identify ways your property is meeting renter expectations, and discover clues for improving community experiences. Consider these questions as a starting point for survey design.

  • Which on-site amenities are your favorites?
  • What could property managers add, change or remove to make the property feel more like home?
  • Do you feel valued and appreciated by the customer service team and policies?
  • How would you rate overall safety and security within the community?
  • Is the maintenance staff responsive and efficient?

Now That You Know What Renters Want …

Are you ready to respond? While 13 percent of Americans don’t have smartphones, the other 87 percent use their devices to manage daily life. Deploying modern, state-of-the-art property management software that responds to the thirst for instant gratification – like an instant confirmation the rent payment is being processed through the tenant portal – will simplify everything they do.

Be bold. Ask your tenants and prospects what they want and need. Modern property management software should enable you to send surveys directly to your renters and easily track responses. Make sure your technology enhances customer service with online maintenance requests, streamlined, efficient communication and tools that make it easier for your team to focus on developing superior customer service strategies to boost retention rates.

Reserve Funds: Six Tips to Improve Your HOA’s Returns

In a 2018 HOA budget survey, 72% of board members indicated that they weren’t confident in the returns they were getting on their reserve funds and/or operating funds. To help, we’ve outlined six ways to improve your returns with the guidance of your HOA management company. Read the full article and download a complimentary guide here > 

1. Only invest in money market accounts and CDs

Your responsibility as a fiduciary is to protect the assets of your association. That means only investing in FDIC-insured money market accounts and CDs and avoiding risky investment vehicles like mutual funds, bonds and stocks.

2. Trust HOA professionals for investment advice

Look to your California community management company and financial services provider to help your board make sound investing decisions. Some boards research investment information themselves via the internet or financial publications, which is time that may be better spent creating better HOA policies.

3. Learn HOA investment fundamentals

Board members should have a basic understanding of HOA financials and state legislation when it comes to managing reserve funds.

For instance, in California, the board must review the current reserve revenues and expenses on a quarterly basis.

4. Work with an HOA-specific financial services company

Work with an HOA financial services company that can help you get the most out of your reserve funds. They should have a large portfolio and existing relationships with banks in order to obtain competitive rates on your behalf.

By utilizing FirstService Financial, FirstService Residential clients typically earn rates that are 4 to 5 times higher than the national average.   In one case, FirstService Financial partnered with a Dana Point association to increase their annual interest by more than $27,000 by leveraging existing bank relationships and evaluating the association’s current investments.

5. Review HOA investments regularly

Reviewing your reserve fund investments on a regular basis is important. Banks often offer teaser rates to customers, which will go away over time. Review your portfolio quarterly to make sure rates don’t change.

6. Create an Investment Policy

Last but not least, create an HOA Investment Policy. Karla Chung, vice president of FirstService Financial said,