Impound, Impact, Innovation

Thrive Editorial pic june 2015

Depending on whose report you dig into, my neighborhood is made up of a significant number of individuals and families in the lower income range. According to City-data.com, in 2011, over 40% of the residents in my zip code had incomes at or below poverty level. I would venture to say that many of those residents are among the large percentage who can’t afford the cost of auto or homeowners insurance in Detroit. I’ve seen what would be an inconvenience or minor blip for a middle-class family become a substantial crisis for families whose economic margins are razor thin.

We’ve been in this neighborhood for 20 years and witnessed decline as family homes have been lost because of back taxes or destroyed by fire, with no insurance to repair or rebuild them. I hear gunshots on way too regular basis (I just heard a series of shots as I am writing this), and we’ve personally had automobiles (yes, with an “s”) stolen and broken into. I’ve seen abandoned vehicles with no doors, no tires, and no seats remain on a street in plain sight for literally weeks after being reported. When the police do respond quickly it is much appreciated, whether in my neighborhood or one that I drive through regularly.

I appreciate the ordinance that authorizes the chief of police to “remove, cause to be removed or arrange for the removal, from the streets of the city and private property within the city, any vehicle that has been abandoned.” What I don’t appreciate is having one of our household vehicles towed as abandoned without warning for no other reason than “it was in the same spot for over 48 hours.” A check of the license plate before towing would have clearly revealed the truth that the vehicle was not abandoned, but parked in front of the owner’s residence.

So about $200 and a missed workday later, we were able to retrieve the vehicle. The city facility was an embarrassment, the process inefficient and punitive, and the service beyond bad. I took out my camera and filmed the conditions and some of the interaction because it was so unbelievably bad. We jumped through the necessary hoops because while trying to reason with those in authority, the impound fee meter was ticking. Since the car was towed on a Friday and vehicles cannot be retrieved on the weekend, we had to pay several days’ worth of storage fees. All attempts to reason with those involved in the process was like something out of a reality show or an episode or “What Would You Do?”

Here’s the thing: impounding vehicles generates revenue, but at what cost? We picked up our car at a city impound yard that had what looked like thousands of vehicles. I wondered what the stories were behind each of them. How many were there because an already struggling family couldn’t afford to pay the fees to retrieve it? Or maybe they couldn’t afford the extremely high insurance rates in Detroit, though they would have to procure insurance and pay the impound fees before they could get

their car back. I wonder how many individuals lost jobs as a result of having their vehicle sitting there in that yard, moving them from uninsured to unemployed. How many vehicles represent a family who had to choose between paying utilities, rent, and getting their car back? How many were there that represented someone who broke no law but was too broke to pay the impound fees? How can we ensure that enforcement includes the bigger picture?

I have been encouraged by Mayor Duggan’s plans to make insurance affordable in Detroit as well as having our inflated property taxes reduced after a recent reassessment. The recent decision to reduce the penalty fees for residents at risk of losing their homes because they can’t afford the taxes is among these seemingly counter revenue-generating decisions. But these decisions help to mitigate the risk of further crises for many of Detroit’s residents and ultimately stabilizes our neighborhoods.

We must be intentional on all fronts, and–yes, the other “I” word–innovative in our thinking about how to avoid pushing many of our residents over the edge or perpetuating crisis. We all have to see the bigger picture.