Tensions build as Seattle seeks to resume parking enforcement

The city has not enforced its 72-hour parking limit for the past year. Resumption has some worried about the fate of people living in RVs.

Neal Lampi sits with friend, neighbor and Real Change vendor colleague Mike Hall inside of Lampi's RV along Third Avenue in Seattle's SoDo neighborhood on March 31, 2021. Lampi has lived houseless in this part of the city for the past three years. Should parking enforcement ramp up, Lampi and Hall both believe it would be more difficult for them to survive on the streets of Seattle. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

When Seattle stopped enforcing its 72-hour parking limit in March 2020, it meant Neal Lampi could stay put for a little while. He still occasionally moves the RV in which he lives, but nothing like the “musical chairs” of before. His current parking spot, on Third Avenue South, has been home for the past two months.

Mayor Jenny Durkan said last month that the 72-hour limit would return on April 1, just over a year since its pause. Businesses are reopening, said her one-sentence announcement, and as those businesses return to normal, so too must the space around them. 

There will be a "a period of education" in the coming days, said Rachel Schulkin, spokesperson for Durkan. "After that period, the City will then start to enforce with citations," said Schulkin.

With the return to parking enforcement comes a now-familiar pandemic-era tension, with logistical and philosophical hurdles for Seattle as it seeks a return to “normal.” Like the eviction moratoriums or temporary hotel-based housing, finding the best way to back out of the pause on parking enforcement poses deep challenges.

For one, many advocates view the prepandemic normal of occasionally scattering RVs as neither proper nor effective. As it relates to housing and homelessness, in particular, Seattle was under a state of emergency even before COVID-19, raising the question of why it makes sense to return to the past on actions related to homelessness.  

“COVID has provided us with many other ways of doing business,” said the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, who helps lead a team of people who do outreach to people living in vehicles, helping them get their tabs up to date, make repairs when necessary and maybe find somewhere more permanent to live. “Why would we go back to 72-hour movement when it’s going to be next to impossible for people who’ve been in one place for more than 12 months to move? Many of these vehicles aren’t going to start…. But more than that, isn’t there a better way?”

At the same time, the temporary measures put into place at a time of great uncertainty pose their own problems. The lifting of the 72-hour parking limit may have spared people parking tickets as they stayed home and halted the semiregular scattering of RVs. But without better alternatives, said Erin Goodman, executive director of SoDo Business Improvement Area, the permanence of the RVs in SoDo has created tension in the neighborhood, leading to more conflict and complaints.

“When you had the rules in place and everybody sort of moved, there was not this sort of tension we’re dealing with now,” she said. “We’ve had RVs who haven’t had to move for over a year and they’re a little territorial.”

Schulkin of the mayor's office said the 72-hour rule is intended to promote transit use while also improving access to businesses. "Reinstating the 72-hour rule can help promote mobility and the regular operations of the right-of-way," she said. 

Lampi hears the complaints of the businesses in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood and he gets it. “I can understand the neighbors’ complaints, completely,” he said, standing in a sunbeam in front of his blue and white motorhome, a line of cars, vans and other RVs where people sleep stretching down the block in both directions. “But it’s a bigger problem than what it might appear. It’s not a simple problem. Every single person down here has a story.”

Neal Lampi exits his RV along Third Avenue in Seattle's SoDo area on March 31, 2021. "I work Monday to Friday as a vendor for Real Change," says Lampi, who looks for some sense of normalcy in abnormal times with his schedule. "I've been waiting for nearly a year for my unemployment and stimulus checks due to the pandemic. I call my elected officials almost daily and leave the messages but I never hear back." (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Durkan’s announcement that the city was reinstating the 72-hour parking limit was tucked into her news last month that the city was extending its eviction moratorium. The announcement promised a plan from the Seattle Department of Transportation, but, said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, that plan has not been clear.

“We’ve received no official correspondence from the mayor’s office directly,” she said Wednesday. “We are all frustrated by the growing number of folks who need housing and seeing people living in the elements in RVs. It’s heartbreaking and it’s frustrating. But we have to have an alternative. If they’re going to be given a 72-hour notice we need to be opening up safe lots” or find other options, she added.

Even amid the complexity of the region’s broader homelessness crisis, vehicle-based homelessness poses its own unique challenges. Efforts specifically aimed at people living in their vehicles have been halting; the city runs three “safe lots,” but other efforts have proved expensive or ineffective. Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court is considering a case with huge implications about whether the city can tow someone’s vehicle if it’s their primary residence. 

Before the pandemic, city and privately run efforts sought to ticket and tow vehicles in which people lived. Kirlin-Hackett’s team, known as the scofflaw mitigation team, works to help people pay and avoid tickets, as well as connect them with housing or a spot in one of the city’s three “safe lots” for vehicles. 

Meanwhile, the city’s RV remediation team focuses on more immediate concerns, including garbage removal, pumping waste and moving vehicles that block rights of way, said Sabrina Register, spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities, where the team is housed. That may include asking RVs to move from parking spaces. 

However, that team has also paused much of its work during the pandemic, Register said, leaving vehicles in place. 

Schulkin with the mayor's office said the city's HOPE outreach team also works with people living in their vehicles.  

Decorations and keepsakes, including a comically tuned broken clock, adorn the walls of Neil Lampi's RV along Third Avenue in Seattle's SoDo area on March 31, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Lampi has lived in his RV since 2015. He bought it for about $4,000. It still runs, but it doesn’t have working plumbing or heat. “It’s basically a fiberglass tent on wheels,” he said. 

Before the pandemic, Lampi worked at a church, doing odd jobs around the property. But with his COPD, he felt vulnerable to COVID-19 and left. It was a mistake, he said, and he’s struggled to secure unemployment income since. 

One thing Lampi has noticed is that the mood among those living in their vehicles has been much softer since the city paused enforcement. Before the pandemic, people would be asked to move, kicking off a competition for a parking space somewhere else. “You don’t look at the other RVs as a neighbor anymore,” he said. “The other RV is kind of your competition.”

But that has changed over the previous months, he said. 

“With the 72-hour restrictions lifted, I’ve gotten to know everybody on a first name basis since the pandemic,” he said. “People have begun looking out for each other. It’s calmed things down, and it’s taken some of the edge off the tension I’m talking about.”

Among the concerns for outreach workers is that, after so much time idle, most RVs won’t start and could be towed as a result. Kirlin-Hackett said it’s clear that people’s vehicles have deteriorated over the past year. One outreach worker told him out of 20 vehicles he visited on a recent day, only one could start. 

Jacob Schear, an organizer with Real Change, said that from vendors for the newspaper he hears “concern that the enforcement of this rule will amount to something akin to evictions, potentially, without a plan and without clarity.”

And then there are the numbers. King County saw a significant jump in people living in their vehicles from 2019 to early 2020. The city and county did not conduct their annual count of homeless people this year because of the pandemic. But, said Chloe Gale, co-director of REACH, “Anecdotally, I expect we have more people living in vehicles and RVs than we did before. And people have fewer places to go. There’s less cushion in their lives. There are fewer services open that they can connect with. It’s an incredibly challenging time.”

The result is that advocates are calling on the city to slow its return to enforcement until there are clear alternatives. 

Neal Lampi stands inside his RV along Third Avenue in Seattle's SoDo area on March 31, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Goodman of the SoDo Business Improvement Area is sympathetic to the people living in RVs. But without the 72-hour rule, businesses are struggling to keep the space outside clean. She hears more reports of confrontations around loading docks. A recent survey of SoDo businesses found that 70% felt unsafe, she said. While it’s never been any secret that vehicles simply return after being moved, that movement allowed for some cleanup and she’s eager for the city’s RV remediation program to return. 

“We have to figure out a way to have coexistence,” she said. “Coexistence sometimes means the ability to go around the block and to make space. And that’s what’s not happening right now.”

Lampi in some ways represents the complexity of the situation. He’s hesitant to take much help, hoping instead to get his plans for a modular housing project off the ground on his own. More than that, he’s become attached to his RV during the pandemic. 

For him, the story should be bigger than where people park. Rather than focusing on the larger forces of poverty and homelessness, he said, people instead say, “‘Let’s not look at the hardship that drives people into an RV. Let’s eliminate them at the end of their rope.’”

A row of recreational vehicles parks along Third Avenue in Seattle's SoDo neighborhood amid the downtown skyline on April 1, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.