Richard Winn considered himself a decent landlord, particularly in a cutthroat rental market like Seattle’s.
Sometimes his tenants did not pay their $75 weekly rent, and weren’t required to sign a lease or put down a deposit.
But there were trade-offs. Winn never gave residents keys to their units. Tenants were not to use the toilets. If they did, Winn asked them to put their waste in a bag.
And sometimes Winn disabled the power, because his tenants might drive away. All of his units were RVs scattered along the side and main streets in the industrial neighborhoods of north Seattle.
“The homeless, you know, they’ll take advantage of you if you don’t keep things straight,” said Winn, 63.
Winn is a key landlord in Seattle’s underground, unregulated market of “vehicle ranching,” the renting of RVs and other vehicles to homeless people. The universe in which he operates is a surreptitious one, among the many hustles that are part of street life, where survival is often built on barters and trades.
Four years into Seattle and King County’s declared state of emergency on homelessness, RVs doubling as homes are a familiar, if frustrating, part of the landscape up and down the West Coast, an American symbol of freewheeling independence that has also become among the most visible signs of modern homelessness.
“If I’m helping someone out, that’s OK,” said Winn, who himself has lived in a motor home, of which there were more than 800 during this year’s point-in-time count of homeless people in King County. “Maybe I might go to heaven.”
But what Winn calls benevolence, the city of Seattle would label predatory, because his tenants are beyond the reach of city and state tenant protections. Many of the RVs on Seattle’s streets are in extreme disrepair, creating eyesores and serious environmental and health hazards in neighborhoods across the city, drawing anger from business owners and residents alike.
It’s a world whose size is hard to measure. The city is unsure how many vehicle ranchers are operating, or how many people are renting from them.
Nonetheless, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has now taken direct aim at this underground homeless economy, budgeting more than $1.3 million over four years (from 2017-2020) to destroy the most dilapidated RVs on the streets, and proposing new regulations that the Seattle City Council will hear this week.
“We want to be really clear: Nobody should be living in conditions like this,” said Ann Gorman, a strategic adviser with the city.
It is unclear if the strategy will reduce homelessness. Homeless people and advocates say defining the practice as predatory is shortsighted. Many people living in RVs and cars, even the dilapidated ones, own their vehicles.
Adam Rodriguez, a former deckhand with the state ferry system, used to rent an RV for $10 a day until he moved into a shelter in Kent. On a recent morning, he went back to check on friends still in the vehicle, parked by Evergreen Washelli Cemetery off Aurora Avenue North.
A rat scurried back and forth on the ground between the vehicle and the grass along the cemetery fence line. Still, Rodriguez said, a cramped, messy RV was preferable to a tent, a life he wasn’t “cut out for.”
The city’s plan to increase impounds worried him: There are only so many RVs where a person can live. “Just like the housing market,” Rodriguez said. “You gotta compete for the spots.”
Vehicle ranching in Seattle goes back to at least the 1990s, long before the recent surge in homelessness. The concerns then were similar to those now, that lived-in vehicles are incubators for trash and illegal activity.
When Mary Mitchell worked as a Seattle parking-enforcement officer in the early 2000s, the practice was most common in cars rather than RVs. She quickly learned to spot the signs: A car, emanating a strong odor, filled with debris and moldy food, and space scooped out for a person in the driver’s seat.
“Seeing a person that’s living and sleeping in those conditions, it’s just heart-wrenching,” said Mitchell, now a consumer-protection adviser for the city.
The increase in the homeless population, the disappearance of mobile-home parks and lack of services for people with addiction and mental-health issues created a confluence: more people desperate for a place to live and others ready to capitalize on the need, said Maria Eggers, a Seattle parking-enforcement officer. “I do think there are individuals taking advantage of that,” she said.
Cracking down on the practice is difficult. Unlike in other cities, it is not illegal to live in a vehicle in Seattle. Drivers can skirt parking rules by moving a vehicle at least every 72 hours.
Impounded RVs can end up in the auction yard of Lincoln Towing, the city’s towing contractor. That’s where well-known vehicle rancher Thiago Cross found them. A month and a half after moving to Seattle in 2016, he went to his first auction.
“They kind of laughed at me as I purchased these RVs,” said Cross, adding he recalls buying his first RVs for $1.
He gave those RVs to friends living in tents and returned to the auction again and again, to the point where he says “it’s hard to say” how many vehicles he owned. Lincoln Towing eventually banned him.
Even then, a rancher can easily pay someone to buy back the vehicle and put it back into circulation, the conditions getting worse with each cycle.
“Where are those folks going to go?”
RVs that don’t sell end up in the back corner of the Lincoln Towing lot, a sprawling five-acre compound off North Aurora where golf balls pock the dusty ground, detritus from a driving range next door.
This is the breeding ground for the RV supply chain.
Some RVs look on the verge of collapse, are burned-out shells or vermin-infested — the type of vehicle Seattle said it is targeting with its new initiative. Chains and ropes poke out from underneath many, a sign of repeated towing.
A mural drawn with black marker covered the side of one RV, showing the outline of the Space Needle. “This beauty,” said Lincoln Towing manager Chuck Labertew, sarcasm in his voice. “It’s artwork.”
Labertew no longer allows his employees to go inside the RVs. One got bedbugs after entering one.
“As a person with a conscience, I wouldn’t want anybody living in those,” said Labertew, among the most vocal proponents of the mayor’s efforts to address the issue. “I think they’re better off huddling in a stairwell — where they can see the rats.”
Lincoln Towing got so overrun with RVs two years ago — with more than 100 in the lot at one point — that Seattle started to pay to scrap motor homes that were never claimed by their owners and didn’t sell.
In 2017 and 2018 alone, the city reimbursed Lincoln Towing for nearly $475,700 to destroy more than 300 RVs; at least two were Winn’s, and one was Cross’.
Thus began a steady drumbeat of city efforts to curb the RV market: Authorized officers started to issue “junk vehicle affidavits” on inoperable and abandoned RVs, fast-tracking their path to the scrap yard if the owners don’t claim them. This summer, Durkan spelled out new health and safety criteria, beyond what the state requires, clarifying when vehicles can be considered junked.
Over the past six years, the number of motor homes towed by the city increased roughly sixfold, to 173 in 2018, although about a third of them ended up back on the streets. Seattle has also begun to treat RV clusters like tent encampments, doing more aggressive cleanups and towing.
Now, Durkan is going further, proposing legislation that would allow fines of $250 per day — and misdemeanor charges for subsequent offenses — against anyone who allows people to live in vehicles that the city defines as “extensively damaged,” and offering tenants of those vehicles up to $2,000. The City Council will discuss the measure in committee Friday.
The measure stops short of defining a vehicle as a home, and city isn’t likely to pursue such a path: a King County Superior Court judge ruled last year that levying high impound fees and attaching a lien on a vehicle used as a home may violate the U.S. Constitution and state homestead act. The city is appealing the decision. On Wednesday, city council staff questioned if that ruling could undermine Durkan’s push to fine RV ranchers.
Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, a minister who works closely with vehicle residents, said the mayor’s proposal is a good step, but it doesn’t change the fact that Seattle still has no consistent outreach services for people in vehicles. Seattle has no sanctioned parking lots where RVs can park without getting ticketed or towed.
“Where are those folks going to go?” he said.
“Running a business”
Winn was sitting in his van when he spotted Melissa Israel walking down a Ballard street. Two days earlier, city crews had cleared the tent encampment where she lived beside a BevMo! liquor store.
He introduced himself, bought her some food and asked if she wanted to rent a space in one of his RVs. She accepted, eventually paying $35 a week for the vehicle’s front half.
Winn buys and sells vehicles for a living, as well as driving a tow truck. About two years ago, he and his friends had the idea to fix up RVs and rent them to people in the mountains during ski season. He decided to test the market for homeless people, netting about $2,000 a month in the beginning.
The occupants could move the vehicles every few days so Winn could avoid piling up parking infractions — and maybe help homeless people at the same time, he said.
Though the RV she lived in was “messy, kind of dirty,” Winn was “not unfair,” recalled Israel, 46, who shared the vehicle with a couple for about two weeks.
Winn is “running a business, he’s making money on it,” said Israel, “and we need it.”
But there are opportunities for abuse. Seattle parking-enforcement officer Kelly VanDyke recalled a woman living in someone else’s RV who had an appointment with a case manager about housing. The woman feared the RV owner would take back the vehicle if she left — she didn’t have the keys, and all of her belongings were inside.
“There is a huge power dynamic out there,” VanDyke said.
Payment isn’t always in cash. Sources believe some vehicle occupants are trafficked for sex or to sell drugs.
“It just gets worse with each passing year,” said Dave Bowman, president of Bowman Refrigeration, near the 14th Avenue Northwest Boat Ramp in Ballard where Winn sometimes parked his RV. With RVs come tents, as do “human feces, needles, that kind of thing,” he said.
But many so-called ranchers only own two or three vehicles and aren’t preying on people, said Graham Pruss, who wrote his University of Washington doctoral thesis on vehicular homelessness.
People may live in an RV and use the money they get from renting it out to “develop capital” to get their own apartment, or they store items in their vehicles. Most people Pruss studied allow someone to stay in their car or RV for free in exchange for watching over the vehicle.
Aggressively going after ranchers won’t curb the demand for vehicles, said Pruss, who was homeless as a teenager. “It strips away people’s property and their stability.”
Running out of RVs
By early July, Winn’s supply of RVs was down to three; several had been towed, and he had stopped paying to get them out of the impound lot.
Among his last vehicles was one he had rented to his friend Steve Sande, a crane operator who was gunned down in May inside the RV parked in North Seattle’s Licton Springs neighborhood.
Four men were charged in the killing. Sande was selling drugs out of the motor home, police said, though Winn does not believe it.
Winn said he’s now letting people occupy his RVs for free, including the white Tioga in which Sande was shot.
Under the mayor’s proposal, Winn could still be penalized for allowing people to occupy the RV, even if no one is paying, the mayor’s office said.
People who allow others to live in their vehicles should “feel the same moral imperative to make sure that it is safe, that any landlord feels,” said Tess Colby, the mayor’s senior homelessness adviser.
The city appears committed to its strategy, budgeting $375,000 to dispose of RVs this year, a nearly 58% increase from 2018, and more than $450,000 in 2020.
Toward the end of July, the RV where Sande died was impounded while parked in Ballard. Winn was down to two vehicles.
Among his last tenants was Rodriguez, the former ferry deckhand. Rodriguez had moved out of a shelter and back into Winn’s RV with his girlfriend and four other people, in exchange for working on the vehicle.
Winn, too, is circling back to where he started. He’s moving into his remaining RV because he was kicked out of his Shoreline apartment for parking too many vehicles on the property and, apparently, allowing homeless people to use his shower.
His new gambit is to buy land, somewhere out in the hills, and sell parcels to homeless people in RVs.
“If you can move in an RV and buy a piece of property,” Winn said, “that’s a steppingstone to success.”