When Debbie Guzman got out of the hospital, she received a call from her only neighbor – police officers were trying to get into Guzman’s RV.
When she returned to her vehicle on Will Wool Drive in San Jose, she informed officials that the vehicle would be confiscated for unpaid registration and forced Guzman to pay thousands of dollars to get it from the towing station. She said the towing companies refuse to get RV ownership and she managed to negotiate a lower fee.
She paid $ 6,000 to get her RV back.
“The tug was surprised that I came back to pick it up. I don’t think a lot of people do that, ”she said.
San Jose residents and business owners say the number of RVs in San Jose has increased significantly as people lose their homes during the pandemic. And towing companies have problems because the increased labor costs associated with unclaimed vehicles and scrap metal are depreciating. Tow operators reported in 2019 that more than half of the vehicles seized were unclaimed.
In addition to the financial hardship, COVID-19 forced shipyards to cancel public auction events. Even as San Jose lawmakers cut fees for doing business with the city, the pandemic’s blow on the towing business affected the money that the city’s financial relief efforts could have saved.
In 2017, 3% of the unoccupied population in San Jose lived in vehicles. That rose to 17% in 2019. Data from the city’s homeless survey that same year suggest that those living in emergency or transitional shelters are living in vehicles again – the most visible being recreational vehicles.
Residents like Guzman say that with the development of affordable housing races to keep up with the cost of living in San Jose, RV living is all they can afford while they save money and wait for cheaper housing options.
RV residents out of the way in camps may not get more attention than their tented neighbors – but those who anchor their four-wheeled homes near neighborhoods, businesses, and other gathering places risk the wrath of the community.
Community anger is often expressed in requests to the city’s Department of Transportation to tow vehicles immediately. According to department spokesman Colin Heyne, San Jose police and law enforcement officers may release a tow based on complaints from the community.
As soon as a call comes in, companies respond with an exclusive city contract to tow vehicles on public roads and with rights of way to get them out of sight.
Until recently, six private towing companies have become routine and are part of it financially – until recently.
RVs line Parrott Street in San Jose, taking up parking lots near businesses. Photo by Vicente Vera.
Contracted towing companies confiscated 4,000 vehicles between August 1, 2017 and February 28, 2018. City-wide vehicle seizures rose slightly to 4,134 in 2019 and fell to 3,056 in 2020, which was partly due to the pandemic, but also to the lack of financial incentives to collect so-called “junk cars”.
None of the city’s six towing companies – Matos Auto Towing & Transport, City Towing, Century Tow, Motor Body Company, Courtesy Tow Services, and Along Brothers – responded to requests for comment.
The owner of the Morris & Sons Towing Company, Art Amirkhas, received a planned contract from the city in 2016 to seize cars that are subject to complaints from local residents.
“I looked at it right away and threw it in the trash,” he said. “There was no way to make money and this contract was not economically sustainable. So I decided not to apply.”
The city reduced the fee that all six companies tow to the city from $ 80 to $ 0 as of March 31.
Residents who encounter RV-lined streets are seeing the impact of reduced towing services every time they go outside – and the economic impact of the pandemic is forcing more people to seek refuge in an area the size of a parking lot.
In the Mayfair neighborhood, the parish pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Rev. Gerardo Menchaca, wrote a letter to Alum Rock Union school district superintendent Hillary Bauer explaining that his church was facing challenges with similar camps .
Cement blocks that were placed to prevent RVs and other vehicles from settling there. Photo by Vicente Vera.
Guzman said she won’t be moving to a private RV park because rental costs are too high – most parks charge $ 30 a day and require months of commitments.
Her life situation is uncomfortable, she said, and she is planning to rent an apartment with her boyfriend. But the thousands of dollars she spent on releasing her RV brought her plans back. She longs for stable housing so that she can regain custody of her son.
“I’m doing the VSPDAT (Eligibility Assessment Form) in different counties and still nothing,” Guzman said. “But I don’t need a program to help me. I always do it alone. There are people who are not towed and I don’t understand why. They’ve been threatened again and again, but they’re still there. “
Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.