Live in your car? California state law can be harsh

Submitted October 2019 as part of master’s program in journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.

Caption: Jeremy Shriver brushes his teeth as he prepares for bed with his 19-month-old daughter Irah at a safe parking site in Los Angeles. (Credit: Los Angeles Times)

Claudell Purdiman lost his business four years ago, and in the same month, he also lost his apartment. Caught between legal fees and lost income, Purdiman returned to his childhood neighborhood of Pacoima, and began living out of his car.

Then that was taken away too. 

The City of Los Angeles towed his car under an obscure state law that allows cities to tow cars left on the street for more than 72 hours. Critics say the law is selectively enforced against the homeless.

“It had everything I’ve ever owned,” Purdiman said of his ‘91 Toyota Landcruiser. 

Pacoima, Purdiman’s neighborhood, saw more towings in its principal zip code last year than any other zip code in Los Angeles. A large homeless encampment sits under the 118 Freeway running through the middle of the neighborhood.

Once a hub for black home ownership in the decades after World War II, Pacoima was one of the few neighborhoods in the Valley where returning black veterans could find housing. But in recent years, rapid price increases have driven many families out. Some were able to move to farther flung suburbs with more affordable housing. Others, who found themselves living in cars not far from their previous addresses, now face new pressures to leave the area.

“I can remember playing in that park,” V’Sheta Morgan says, standing by her tarp tent in the homeless encampment and pointing to nearby Roger Jessup Park. “Now it’s like I’m not welcome here anymore.” 

Morgan had been living out of her car before it was towed for violating the 72-hour rule. She said it happened despite the fact that she had moved her car down the block earlier that morning. The city statue does not define what it means for a vehicle to stay in the same place, opening the door for what some critics say are abuses.

Elise Della-Piana, an attorney who provides pro bono assistance to clients whose cars are towed, says the city statute is often used by police responding to neighbor’s complaints against the homeless. 

“They use it to say ‘get out of this neighborhood,” she says.

The rapidly changing demographics of Pacoima’s housed population may play a part in its high number of towings. Data shows that the ten most towed zip codes tend toward middle class incomes and are ethnically homogenous. 

Pacoima has a median income around $57,000 and roughly nine out of ten residents are Hispanic, in contrast with the majority African American composition of the homeless encampment. For the other top zip codes, seven out of ten had a median income within a decile of broader Los Angeles’ median income of $60,000. Nine out of ten of the zip codes had stark white or Hispanic majorities. 

The average amount of towings in a zip code drop off sharply as income rises or falls from the median, and as it becomes more ethnically diverse.

This analysis is based on parking citation data from 2018 provided by the City of Los Angeles. Each citation for a violation of the 72-hour rule — which always results in a towing — was mapped from its listed address and tied to a zip code. The total for each zip code was then compared to household data from the census’s 2015 American Community Survey.

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Nearly 60,000 people are homeless across Los Angeles County, and more than 16,500 people live out of their vehicles, according to county data released this summer.

The costs to recover a towed vehicle are steep — and for the very low-income, sometimes insurmountable. A report written by a coalition of legal advocacy groups says the minimum someone could expect to pay to retrieve their vehicle after it has been towed for three days is $385. After a week, mounting fees raise those costs to $568, and after two weeks, $887.

The report, “Towed into Debt,” says California cities actually end up losing money on these tows, when so many cannot afford to pay the costs. 

It’s one reason California Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill this past legislative session that would limit these kind of towings, a representative from his office said.

“What the report showed was pretty clear,” Jen Kwart, Chiu’s communication director, said. “These towing practices have devastating impacts on low income, and frankly middle income people.”

The bill died in committee this year, but Kwart says they expect to bring it back in the next session.

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