Original article can be found in the San Francisco Chronicle
Written By Emily Green and Lizzie Johnson
It’s every driver’s nightmare: returning to an empty parking spot to find the car has been towed.
In San Francisco, the lucky ones will pay around $600 to get their car back — a charge two to three times higher than nearly every other city in the country, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles included. The most unfortunate will pay hundreds of dollars and still end up losing their car.
The cost of being towed in San Francisco has nearly tripled over the last five years, to $491.25, driven by a 432 percent increase in the administrative fees the Municipal Transportation Agency charges. The MTA says that fee is necessary to ensure full “cost recovery.”
But some San Francisco supervisors and civil rights lawyers say the charges disproportionately harm low-income people and can ruin lives when people forfeit their cars because they can’t pay the fees. The Board of Supervisors will take up the issue Tuesday as it considers whether to support MTA’s proposed $65.4 million, five-year contract extension with tow company AutoReturn.
‘$700 is too much’
“Yes, we want to regulate driver behavior,” Supervisor Jane Kim said. “We have tow-aways for a reason. But $600 and $700 is too much for a single mistake. The city and county of San Francisco shouldn’t be impoverishing people. We shouldn’t be asking people to decide between getting their car and paying their rent.”
“Personally, if I got towed, I’d have to start cutting back on groceries, and I have a pretty good salary,” Supervisor John Avalos said at a subcommittee hearing last month. “If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it would be a dramatic hit.”
About 163 vehicles are towed in San Francisco every weekday.
Emily Van Dyke, a program administrator for the San Francisco Unified School District, was towed in front of her house in the Inner Richmond Thursday morning. She had forgotten to set her alarm for 6:45 a.m. to move her car to comply with a one-day construction permit nearby. When she woke up, it was gone.
At 9 a.m. that morning, she got a ride to the AutoReturn lot on Seventh Street to retrieve her car. The cost: $541.75, which included the towing fee, administrative fee, an extra “dolly or flatbed fee” because the car couldn’t be towed in the usual way, plus $68 for the parking ticket.
“The worst part is going into the lot and seeing the extra ticket on your windshield,” she said, climbing into her car. “It’s a slap in the face. I think it’s irresponsible to assume that people living in this city have $700 of expendable money at a moment’s notice. If you can’t pay it, the money continues to compound. It’s the same for people who can’t get off work or away from school. Any way you look at it, you’re screwed.”
It could have been worse: If drivers don’t retrieve their car for several days — sometimes because they don’t realize it was towed — the costs can quickly balloon to more than $1,000 as storage fees pile on.
Under MTA’s new contract with AutoReturn, consumers will save $22.50 per tow beginning April 1. The new contract also gives a break to out-oftowners whose cars get stolen and then ditched. Tourists now get the same stolen-vehicle waiver against towing fees that has applied to San Francisco residents for three months. Even with that adjustment, the cost of being towed in San Francisco will still add up to $469, not including the ticket. By comparison, the cost of retrieving a vehicle is $185 in New York City, $276 in Los Angeles, $170 in Chicago and $434 in Oakland. Those figures include the city’s administrative fee, which in San Francisco will be $261 under the new contract. In New York and Chicago there is no fee, in Los Angeles it is $115 and in Oakland $166.
‘Full cost recovery’
Towing costs so much in San Francisco largely because of the MTA’s 2010 decision to seek “full cost recovery” for the tow program, which has caused the administrative fee to jump — from $50 to $266 over the last 10 years. Agency representatives said they know of no other municipality that seeks full recovery.
Included in the city’s administrative fee is every cost directly and tangentially associated with the towing program — from the salaries and benefits of the citation enforcement officers who enforce towing restrictions, the paint to draw red zones on curbs, vehicle maintenance, and even part of MTA Director Ed Reiskin’s salary, said Steven Lee, the MTA’s senior manager of financial services and contracts. The administrative fee also helps pay for “administrative staff, accounting, our rent, our legal fees,” Lee said.
AutoReturn, meanwhile, is responsible for all the towing, tow subcontractor management, customer service, and storage and disposal of unclaimed vehicles. Its fee has also risen, from $121.75 to $225.25 over the last 10 years.
As for the ticket that violators receive on top of all the tow charges — that goes to the MTA’s general budget.
Lee said that because fewer cars are towed than in years past, thanks in part to better signage, the charges per tow have steadily increased to compensate AutoReturn and also to cover the city’s expenses. In other words, the fewer people towed, the higher the charges.
Lee defended the agency’s use of administrative fees. “We are a transit-first agency,” he said, asking if the city should “take money from worthy programs like free Muni for youth and seniors or painting the crosswalk to give a break to folks who block commute lanes?”
He added, “It’s not that hard to not get your car towed.”
Some supervisors questioned the agency’s logic.
“The towing fee should be the city’s actual costs and not a way to pad the MTA’s coffers,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said. “There should be an administrative fee, but they are soaking folks.”
‘Economic justice issue’
Elisa Della-Piana, legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, said towing charges have become an “economic justice issue.” She praised the free Muni rides for youth and economically disadvantaged seniors, but said that program shouldn’t come at the expense of poor people who lose their cars because they can’t pay the tow fees.
“There are always trade-offs, but when you have something that feels fundamentally unfair, that is disproportionately burdening low-income families and families of color, that feels rigged against the average citizen — I don’t think it’s a question of which is more worthy to spend on,” she said.
Of the roughly 42,350 vehicles towed annually in San Francisco, about 10 percent of the owners abandon their cars, according to MTA. Those who forfeit their cars still have to pay the difference between the fine and the worth of the car. Unlike some cities, the agency has no program to help poorer people get their cars back.
Lee said such a program would be problematic. “If I say you can pay me later, you can take your car and never come back,” he said.
But Marquez Gray said the tow fees are untenable for working-class families like his.
Gray works at 100 Percent College Prep in the Bayview helping low-income minority students apply for college, and also serves as an associate pastor at City Life Church in SoMa. Last month, he went to Super Bowl City on a Sunday with his wife and four children. He parked about a mile away, on a street lined with cars, where the street sign seemed to indicate he was safe to park.
When he returned, all the cars were gone, including his.
“It was devastating,” he said. Payday was the following Monday, and Gray had only $20 left in his bank account. He and his family took an Uber ride to the tow lot, using a discount the company gives first-time users. His father-in-law met him at the lot and gave him the $500 he needed to retrieve his car. Gray later paid for the $68 ticket sitting on his windshield.
He said it doesn’t make sense to charge him so much money. “It just doesn’t cost that much to tow a car — let alone tow a car five blocks. And I got it within the hour. If it wasn’t for my father-in-law we wouldn’t have a car. I need a car. I have to get my kids to school the next day.”