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Seattle's 'RV auction shuffle' has towed vehicles appearing back on the streets

KOMO Photo

SEATTLE -- The SoDo Business Improvement Area was tracking 75 RV’s camping two years ago in the South Seattle industrial district it serves. Today, it's tracking 400 and many have reappeared back in the neighborhood after being ticketed, towed and sold at auction.

Some have referred to it as the RV auction shuffle, and accuse the City of Seattle of doing little to stop it.

“It’s a big problem,” says Erin Goodman, Executive Director of the SODO BIA.

The RVs under the microscope are often old, falling apart and need towing to get around.

“When all you got is that RV, whether it runs or not, that's your home, it's all you have,” says Mike Lazemby, who’s been living in a RV for three years he admits will take a day and half to start.

When the rigs can’t move on their own, they are sometimes ticketed and impounded. Natalie says that’s what happened to hers.

“I couldn’t afford the impound fees to get it back,” says Natalie, 31, who’s been living on the street since she was 18 years old.

Her RV went to auction, which the city allows when the ‘owner’ can’t pay the impound and towing fees after 21 days.

To her surprise, she’s seen it back on the street.

“Someone bought it for $10, I've actually seen it parked around here," she said. "It sucks."

It’s a routine police have said privately, they are very aware of. Sometimes the RVs are sold at auction for $10 or $15, running or not.

“And they tow them to SODO and rent them out,” says Goodman.

Records shown to KOMO News indicate several RVs that have been impounded by the Seattle Police Department and towed to a storage lot have been set for auction two to three times over the last year. A source associated with the shuffle says there are many more.

As it turns out, the auction is an easy way to grab an RV cheap, running or not, and avoid paying parking tickets and hundreds of dollars in impound fees.

Often RVs that have repeatedly been impounded and sold at auction come with no paper work and the register owners cannot be found. When they are sold at auction, an Abandon Vehicle Report comes with the Bill of Sale.

The buyer is obligated to register the RV within 15 days with the Department of Licensing, but many people don’t and the AVR is often handed from one person to another when the RV is private part sale or traded

Thiago Cross knows the shuffle very well. Business owners, street campers and police have sometimes referred to him as an “RV slum lord”.

He says he and his ‘community’ have purchased 250 to 300 RVs at auction.

“And have put them back into circulation,” says Cross.

He says he’s personally bought nearly 70, paying sometimes just $1 since he moved to Seattle in February 2017. KOMO News has not been able to confirm his claims.

He calls himself an advocate for the homeless.

“Do we have the right to exist and move along to where, those questions have never been answered by the city,” says Cross who was homeless but accepted the City’s offer of housing and now in an apartment building operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

He admits RVs bought at auction are being rented, not by him but by members of his ‘community.'

“That’s happening because we have to recoup our costs,” says Cross. “Somehow or another we have to try and recover the funding to be able to redistribute them.”

“People want off the street so bad that they are willing to rent the RV,” says Lazemby. “But they are not realizing that the RV they are renting cost about as much per month as it did to buy the damn thing.”

“This is preying on the folks that have nothing, putting them in unsanitary and unsafe environments,” says Goodman.

City law says a vehicle cannot park in the same spot anywhere in the city for more than 72 hours or it can be ticketed or towed.

But RV street campers know police have been reluctant to enforce that law because of 2018 court ruling that would allow a vehicle can be declared as someone’s homestead, which the City should not take away.

That case is now on appeal, but Cross and others know the city has shown a reluctance to impound an RV that appears to be someone’s residence – unless it’s become a health and safety risk.

“The city is too lenient,” says Goodman.

Having lost her RV to an impound, Natalie is determined to get another, the same way someone got hers at the auction.

“We have $130 and we plan on going to the auction and get a new motorhome,” she says.

Cross has now been banned from auctions of impounded vehicles but says he’s going to continue working the RV shuffle.

“Yeah, of course I am, I believe in what I’m doing," he said.

There is a pilot project in the works that would establish a free RV camping lot in Seattle for the homeless sometime in the first quarter of 2019. When it opens and where it will be has not been determined.

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