A 2000 GMC pickup parked on a Seattle side-street is the legal home of Seattle resident Steven Long, a King County Superior Court judge ruled last week. Her decision could affect the roughly 2,300 residents living in their vehicles on Seattle streets, and ripple out to other Washington cities with large homeless populations.
The ruling is based on a 123-year law called the Homestead Act, which bars governments from forcing a person to sell their home to satisfy debts, KIRO 7 reports. The station claims this is first time (in Seattle at least), that anyone has successfully argued that a vehicle can be their home.
Long has lived in his truck since 2014, but last year, after being parked in the same spot for five months, the city impounded it, according to KIRO 7. He now owes roughly $900 in impound fees, according to the city — but his legal team argued that because the vehicle was his home, the city couldn’t hold on to it until he pays those fees, or sell it to cover them. The city attorney said in a statement that the city disagrees with the ruling and is “evaluating its options.”
Unlike many other cities, Seattle doesn’t have an outright ban on sleeping in cars (legislation that, in 2014, Next City labeled the “the trendiest law in America”). In 2016, the city created several several safe “zones” with minimal services, as well as one safe “lot” with cooking facilities, on-site staff and case management.
And last August, Councilmember Mike O’Brien introduced draft legislation to create a “vehicular residences program” for people living in their cars or RVs, Crosscut reported at the time.
“If those residents agreed to a set of rules — not dumping trash, for example — and agreed to work towards permanent housing, they would be allowed greater leeway when it comes to ticketing or towing for many parking violations,” according to the news site. “These may include parking for longer than 72 hours on public streets, parking with expired tabs, being labeled as a ‘junk motor vehicle,’ or being labeled a ‘scofflaw’ or frequently cited vehicle.”
The city’s laws regarding both vehicle-dwelling and tent cities are often criticized as a Band-Aid approach to the homelessness crisis, which stems, in part, from the local housing crisis. Still, some advocates see them as a necessity as homelessness continues to grow — and business-as-usual laws in many cities state that it’s illegal to beg, sleep in vehicles or even lie down in public. (And of course, even if the laws aren’t that explicit, the street furniture is.) With such national prohibitions in mind, LoGerfo recently told NPR that she hopes other cities are watching the Seattle ruling.
“We’re hoping the city and other cities across the state will look at this and rethink how they’re treating people who have no other choice but to live in a vehicle,” she said.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.