Denver “junker” parking ordinance would could harm homeless people, advocates say

A proposed Denver ordinance designed to make it easier to ticket and impound “junkers” and other vehicles clogging up parking lots and public rights of way could be used to target low-income and unhoused people.

That’s according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which sent a letter outlining its concerns about the proposed law change to the City Council offices on May 1, hours before the ordinance was set for a second and final vote.

ACLU of Colorado staff attorney Annie Kurtz declined to say if the letter should be construed as a lawsuit threat.

“We have a policy on not commenting on potential litigation before anything is filed in court,” Kurtz said.

The letter quotes a Supreme Court decision regarding the potential for discriminatory enforcement of local laws when clear standards for enforcement are not included. The ACLU and other opponents of the ordinance are specifically concerned about an expanded definition of what qualifies as a “junker” vehicle and the broad discretion police and parking enforcement officials would have in applying that definition when impounding vehicles that aren’t moved in accordance with the proposed law.

With complaints from the public largely dictating where the city’s limited parking enforcement resources go, there is strong potential the proposed ordinance could lead to the over-policing of marginalized groups like the unhoused, Kurtz said.

At a meeting last month, Councilwoman Robin Kniech said she had questions about the legal liability the city might face if the ordinance were enacted.

“Obviously, that is a risk and a concern and if we are going to proceed with this and there are scenarios where we are facing more legal liability,” Kniech said. “Obviously, minimizing that would be helpful to us in many degrees.”

The questions the letter raised were enough for the Council to postpone the final vote until Monday. But the ACLU and homelessness advocates’ request to open the ordinance up to more public comment and input — and delay the final vote until a new, possibly move progressive council is elected in June — appears unlikely to be granted.

“It’s certainly tight but we’ll do the best with the time we have,” Kurtz said when asked if she felt the ordinance could be amended in a way that would allay her concerns.

The ordinance, the product of more than a year and a half of work by officials in the Denver City Attorney’s Office and in the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, is aimed at giving right-of-way enforcement officials more tools when addressing problem vehicles ranging from abandoned cars to trailers being used to store scrap metal to RVs and commercial vehicles parked on city streets. The vehicles are viewed a safety and space management concerns.

Key changes the ordinance would make include prohibiting any vehicle over 22 feet in length or a trailer not attached to a vehicle from being in one spot for more than two hours on any street in the city, including industrial areas where parking such vehicles for longer periods of time was previously allowed. There are exceptions for vehicles actively providing a service in the area.

Recreational vehicles over 22 feet long and vehicles hooked up to trailers that are over 22 feet long combined have 24 hours before they are legally required to move, under the proposed new rules. The distance they have to move would be bumped up from 100 feet to 700 feet, roughly the length of a city block. RVs under 22 feet in length would have three days before being required to move at least a block.

What qualifies a vehicle as a “junker” would also be changed under the updated law. The new definition would include any vehicle that is apparently inoperable, disabled, in unsafe condition or does not have up-to-date plates. Even vehicles with up-to-date plates could be classified as junkers if they are deemed to be extensively damaged. That could include vehicles with broken windows or windshields and vehicles with missing wheels or deflated tires.

The ACLU in its letter described the definition extensively damaged as “near-satirical” but the council members backing the changes say the update is necessary to address the sheer number of large vehicles clogging up city streets now.

“We have had been having a lot of conversations with small business owners and with our (right-of-way) enforcement team as we saw an explosion of large, sometimes completely abandoned or burned-out vehicles,” Councilman Jolon Clark, one of the ordinance’s sponsor’s, said of the purpose of the possible rule changes. “If people are moving (these large vehicles) 100 feet, it’s still causing the same problems for the same small business owner.”

He provided an example of an RV found in his District 7 that was abandoned and loaded with old tires.

“This is not a full ban or any kind of criminalization,” Clark said. “We’re just trying to provide some better enforcement tools for (vehicles) that are fully abandoned and stuffed full of tires.”

The Council has already amended the proposed ordinance once. A previous version would have required all vehicles, not just RVs, trailers and other large vehicles, to move at least 700 feet after 72 hours on a city street. Clark proposed an amendment that removed any set distance requirement. Now the law reads that cars must simply be moved at least once every 72 hours.

The change demonstrates the Council is working toward solutions that make right-of-way management make sense for everyone including people in parking-constrained areas like Capitol Hill that might not to able to move their car down the block or to the next block, Clark said.

But, so far at least, Clark and city staff have resisted suggestions that the ordinance be amended to include a requirement to do outreach if it is apparent someone is living in a vehicle deemed a junker before that vehicle is towed or impounded. As written, the proposed law would allow the city to impound those vehicles if they remain in a public right-of-way for more than 24 hours. The law on the books now gives vehicle owners 72 hours to demonstrate their vehicle is operable once a junker notice has been placed on it.

With parking enforcement resources already spread thin in the city, adding notice and outreach requirements isn’t feasible at this point, Marley Bordovsky, of the City Attorney’s Office, told the council last month.

“It might very well bring enforcement to a screeching halt if there were a requirement,” Bordovsky said.

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The ACLU and homelessness advocates plan to pack Monday’s meeting to sway the trajectory of the ordinance if not outright stop it. They plan to share stories about people living in their vehicles that have already been harmed by the city’s parking enforcement rules as written. Advocates say they are currently helping a woman try to recover her parents’ cremains after the RV she was living in was impounded with all her belongings inside.

“It’s not just a disruption to someone’s life who is experiencing homelessness, this is real heartache to show up and find your car what feels like stolen,” said Terrell Curtis, executive director of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative.

Curtis’ organization provides sanctioned overnight parking spots in church parking lots and other locations around the metro area for people living in their vehicles as a last resort. In August, the city’s housing department awarded the organization $150,000 to run at least two safe parking sites in Denver with the goal of accommodating as many as 60 households.

Right now there are two safe parking sites in Denver with room for about 20 cars each, Curtis said. The organization plans to open two more overnight sites in the city soon.

The overall demand for safe places for people living in their vehicles is far greater, at least eight times what the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative is able to provide right now, Curtis said.

Sheila Pendleton is among the people staying in one of the initiative’s Denver lots. The 52-year-old has lived in her Hyundai Santa Fe in four states including Colorado over the last two years. Before she applied for and was given a place in a sanctioned lot, Pendleton said she mostly parked near Washington Park and Cheesman Park, theorizing that wealthy homeowners there had surveillance systems which made her feel safer.

The risk of being towed or even getting tickets is a daily fear she lives with when she leaves the parking lot during the day.

“It’s another thing that keeps you from making progress in the system because you’re afraid to leave your car for any length of time,” she said. “How do you afford that on top of everything else?”

Despite an active city contract, no one with the city contacted Curtis or her organization about the ordinance prior to it being placed on the Council’s agenda. She has ideas for amendments, especially around adding a clear definition of what constitutes an “apparently inoperable” vehicle.

“Sometimes it can be pretty obvious someone is living in these vehicles,” she said. “We just want to work with council, if this is going to have to have to happen, to minimize the potential for harm to really vulnerable people.”

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