Even a brief drive around the neighborhoods of Vancouver is likely to reveal vehicles that are doubling as residences — a result of the state’s housing shortage and homeless crisis.
As lawmakers consider changes to state law in dealing with the vehicles, they also should consider the concerns and needs of nearby residents. Vehicle encampments contribute to neighborhood blight and can present safety and sanitation problems.
In examining an issue that has broad social and legal implications, there are a couple simple questions: Would lawmakers welcome an encampment on their street? Would they want local officials to be empowered to remove vehicles? What is the best way to deal with encampments while protecting the civil rights of those who live in them?
Of course, the issue is not as simplistic as answering those questions. Each query comes with complexities as difficult as the homeless issue that is permeating the state.
Adding to those complexities is a 2021 decision from the state Supreme Court in City of Seattle v. Long. The court ruled that some homestead protections apply to vehicles being used for housing. The decision also expanded the circumstances under which an individual may challenge “excessive fines” — namely for the cost of recovering an impounded vehicle.
Last week, the state Senate Housing Committee heard recommendations from a work group convened to study the issue. The group wants to limit the circumstances under which a vehicle can be towed and increase the chances of homeless people recovering the vehicles and belongings after a vehicle is removed.
Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue and chair of the committee, said, “We don’t want to impound somebody’s vehicle when that is their means of getting to work, when that is their shelter, when that contains their personal belongings.”
That is understandable. Compassion is necessary in dealing with difficult social issues. But equally important are the needs of local businesses, residents and public spaces.
In one example, reported last year by The Columbian, an encampment of RVs and campers near the fields of Alcoa Little League and Fort Vancouver High School was generating concern.
School officials were powerless because the vehicles were not on district property. And the city of Vancouver’s Homeless Assistance and Resources Team and police officers monitored the encampments for waste mitigation and general sanitation, but that does little to ease the concerns of people in the area.
Vancouver’s city code states: “Occupancy of a recreational vehicle is allowed when the vehicle is located in a manufactured home park or RV park where permitted recreational vehicle spaces are provided and where such occupancy does not violate any other city, state or federal regulation.”
That likely does not apply to parking for a lengthy time on a public street, or to a congregation of vehicles in one area. But enforcement here and elsewhere has been hampered by an increase in the number of people living in vehicles and by moratoriums brought about during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seizing the vehicle and belongings of a resident for illegal parking should, indeed, be viewed as a last resort to be used when additional infractions occur. But as legislators consider changes to state law, they should take a broad view of the situation.
The primary questions should surround what they would want their neighborhood to look like and how vehicle encampments impact local businesses.