Denver City Council amends junker vehicle ordinance at behest of homelessness advocates

The Denver City Council tweaked a new law aimed at giving police and parking enforcement officials more power to ticket and impound RVs, trailers, semis and damaged or abandoned “junker” vehicles on city streets on Monday.

The last-second adjustment, put forth by Councilman Paul Kashmann, requires city officials to provide an additional 48 hours of notice before a vehicle is impounded if they believe that people are living in that vehicle or using it for short-term shelter. The amendment passed unanimously before the amended bill passed 11-1 with Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca voting no.

The 48-hour delay was meant to provide time for city officials to reach out to potentially homeless vehicle owners and assuage concerns about the wider discretion the new law provides city officials to ticket and impound large or damaged vehicles parked on city streets. But opponents still see the changes the bill made to the city code as tools for targeting unhoused people and low-income residents who lack the means to quickly fix their damaged cars.

“I wouldn’t use the word satisfied,” Annie Kurtz, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said. “I think that there were good amendments brought but there are much bigger issues that this bill leaves unresolved.”

The bill, a wide-ranging update to city parking rules, was poised to be voted on last week, but a letter from Kurtz caused co-sponsor Councilman Jolon Clark to delay the final reading until Monday.

Changes the bill makes include prohibiting any vehicle more than 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 the time limit was previously longer. Vehicles actively providing a service are an exception.

Recreational vehicles more than 22 feet long and vehicles hooked up to trailers that are more than 22 feet long combined have 24 hours before they are legally required to move, under the rules approved Monday. The distance they have to move would be bumped up from 100 feet to 700 feet — roughly the length of a city block.

The ACLU and homelessness advocates took particular issue with changes the law makes to what is considered a “junker.” The bill shortens the period a car tagged with a junker notice can be on the street before it is impounded from 72 hours to 24 hours if the owner cannot demonstrate it is operable.

Before Monday night, the bill would have defined a vehicle as a “junker” even if the only thing wrong with it was that it did not have up-to-date plates. That was apparently the product of a typo during a previous amendment to the bill. Clark introduced an amendment Monday that made it clear a vehicle had to have extensive damage or other issues in addition to expired plates to meet the definition.

Clark and city staff members emphasized throughout the debate that the primary focus of the changes was to address a major uptick in damaged, unsafe and often abandoned recreational vehicles on city streets in the last handful of years. He noted neighboring cities like Lakewood have banned RV parking on city streets entirely.

“This was a big compromise solution from where a lot of people were pushing for us to really go out and do something more Lakewood has done which is much further reaching,” he said.

Kashmann’s 48-hour notice amendment came after the meeting had already begun and some of his colleagues complained they hadn’t had time to properly review it.

Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval asked if city parking enforcement officials were even qualified to determine if a vehicle was being used as shelter. Right-of-way enforcement officials are trained to look for visual cues to determine if someone is living in a car, Cindy Patton, from the city’s transportation and infrastructure department, said.

In many cases, vehicles are not ticketed or towed as quickly as they could be under city code already due to a shortage of right-of-way enforcement resources in the city, but Kashmann felt his amendment was important to “make sure that safety net is there.”

His amendment also requires city staff to provide regular reports to the council about towed vehicles including whether or not there was an attempt to contact or assist the vehicle owner prior to it being towed. The first report is due Aug. 10.

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CdeBaca said her District 9 faces many problems with abandoned vehicles, trailers and semis parked on streets for long periods of time. She voted no Monday because the bill did nothing to improve the city’s capacity to enforce its right-of-way rules, she said. Even with the 48-hour notice requirement, she pointed out the city lacks safe places for people living in their cars to go.

To date, there are two sanctioned overnight parking lots operating in the city with capacity for roughly 40 vehicles combined, according to Terrell Curtis of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative. Curtis expects two more lots to open soon.

The City Council will soon consider a code change being backed by members Chris Hinds and Robin Kniech that will make “temporary managed communities” including safe parking sites a permanent part of the city code. Right now they are a temporary use that could go away at the end of the year.

Hinds’ opponent in the District 10 runoff election, Shannon Hoffman, was seated in the gallery on Monday night alongside other opponents to the junker ordinance. She and others opposing the legislation wore stickers that read “No to poverty tows.”

“(The council) needed to do what the ACLU asked and delay the vote until after the new mayor and council are seated,” in July, homelessness advocate Amy Beck said of the bill. “This just opens it up for right-of-way enforcement to target unhoused people. You’re not going to see BMWs and Teslas being impounded.”

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