Denver might expand parking restrictions on large vehicles and “junker” cars

But homeless advocates and ACLU Colorado say the legislation being considered by City Council could unfairly target people experiencing poverty and living in their cars.
7 min. read
An RV parked in Cole. Nov. 18, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

On some city streets, large commercial semi-trailer trucks stay parked for days. On others, small businesses struggle to get work done because trucks are blocking delivery zones and access for customers and employees. Smaller vehicles sometimes block sidewalks for pedestrians and people in wheelchairs for weeks at a time.

That's according to City Councilmembers Kendra Black and Jolon Clark, who are trying to pass legislation amending Denver's parking laws for vehicles across the city. After postponing a vote Monday, Council is set to decide on the bill on next week.

"They've essentially been using our city streets for commercial storage of their vehicles, which are not what our city streets are for," Black said during an April 11 Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure committee meeting.

The bill's sponsors said the previous laws around parking time limits, large vehicle parking and abandoned vehicles make enforcement difficult when residents or business owners call in complaints. The new legislation seeks to close those loopholes in enforcement.

But it might have unintended consequences. Homeless advocates are urging City Council to vote against the bill, cautioning that it could unfairly target people experiencing poverty and homelessness. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Colorado also sent a letter to City Council Monday raising concerns about the bill.

The new laws would expand parking restrictions for large vehicles and "junker" cars.

Many public parking spots across the city have 72-hour time limits, after which people must move their vehicles at least 100 ft. This created what Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) Director of Operations Cindy Patton called a "merry-go round," where people moved cars over one spot without actually freeing up space along the curb, especially in commercial areas where businesses rely on patrons parking nearby.

Under the new rules, people would have to move vehicles 700 ft., about the length of a long city block. In areas without meters or shorter time limits (like many residential streets), people would have to move their cars within 72 hours, though there is not a specific distance requirement. This means that in most cases, people parking regular cars outside their homes in residential areas without driveways would be able to park in their same spot after returning from work, errands or other travel.

The bill would also expand two-hour and 24-hour parking restrictions on large vehicles like trailers, truck-tractors, semi-trailers, campers and RVs from just residential areas to all areas in the city, including industrial areas (unless the vehicles are actively providing a service or parked at a motel by the owner).

The changes would also expand the definition of "junker" vehicles to include non-motorized trailers and add language about vehicles in "unsafe condition." "Junkers" would have to be moved out of the public right of way within 24-hours, rather than the previous 72-hours. Officials cited enforcement challenges in the 72-hour time window, during which the city would lose track of "junker" cars that were moved.

Vehicles that do not comply with the new regulations would be towed after officials put a notice on the vehicles. Previously, if a person was inside the vehicle at the time of notice, city officials had to collect contact information, which officials said led to people locking themselves in their cars to avoid enforcement. With the new rules, that level of contact would no longer be required.

Homeless advocates and the ACLU worry the changes could target people living in their cars.

In a letter sent to City Council Monday, ACLU Colorado wrote that the legislation was "overly broad" and could lead to "discriminatory surveillance and policing of already-marginalized communities." The letter also raised concerns about lowering requirements to give notice on vehicles and excessive fines that could affect people living in their vehicles.

"We are concerned that the legislation has not benefited from sufficient public, community stake-holding and that discussions around its passage and implementation have not adequately considered the harm it may cause to residents who are already living in precarity in Denver," wrote ACLU Staff Attorney Anna Kurtz. Kurtz requested Council postpone the vote to gather more stakeholder input, which Council agreed to do on Monday.

At a City Council meeting in April, V Reeves, an activist with Housekeys Action Network, talked about their time doing outreach for the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, trying to get people experiencing homelessness and living in cars connected with housing. They said people living in cars had a better chance of getting into housing, but that many struggled to get timely maintenance on their cars. They said the broad definition of a "junker" could include cars that people experiencing homelessness rely on for shelter.

"Being in their cars meant that they had a chance at achieving housing," Reeves said during the Council meeting.

The bill would define a "junker" as a vehicle that is inoperable, in an "unsafe condition," missing a current license plate or "extensively damaged." That damage could include things like broken windows, a broken windshield, missing or deflated tires or missing or damaged lamps.

Ana Miller, another activist with Housekeys Action Network who previously experienced homelessness themselves, cautioned that the rules could push people into homelessness.

"Not everybody can afford to fix their car in a small amount of time," Miller said during a City Council meeting in April. "They get their car towed off, that ends up making bill payments for the car to get back, [the] car to get fixed, they end up falling behind on rent, boom they're out on the streets living in said car."

Housekeys Action Network organizer Therese Howard said they worry about the requirement to move 700 ft., rather than the previous 100 ft. Howard said this would make life difficult for people living in parked cars, who already struggle to find secure places to park. Plus, they said the broader restrictions on bigger vehicles could "essentially ban" people living in RVs and trailers from the city.

"Passing this bill would lead to countless people who live in their vehicles due to unaffordability of housing losing their vehicle homes and being forced into the streets," Howard said during a City Council meeting. "I'm terrified to see the effects of this bill on our community. We already have far too many community members who have lost their vehicles to impound as the city took their home."

Other City Council members have also voiced concerns about the bill.

Councilmembers generally agree on the need to better address large vehicles blocking businesses and abandoned vehicles on the street. But not everyone is sure this bill does the job.

"Here in industrial areas where we have all of the situations happening, we have semis that are parking waiting for Purina or coming from Union Pacific Railroads, and then we have unhoused people in abandoned trailers and we have stolen trailers and stolen cars, we have very different experiences with enforcement and outreach," said Councilmember Candi CdeBaca during Monday's City Council meeting. She voted against the bill both in committee and during first read at City Council in April.

"We need a scalpel for what we're trying to do and this is kind of just all over the place," she continued. "It's not really holding the companies accountable who have the semis that are parking on our streets in the neighborhood, it's not really addressing the outreach for what and where to send people."

Councilmembers Robin Kniech and Paul Kashmann also raised concerns about a potential lack of outreach and intervention for people living in their cars before the city impounds vehicles.

The bill was supposed to go up for a final vote on Monday, but Clark, one of the co-sponsors, passed a motion to postpone the vote to better address some of the concerns. Council is now expected to vote on the bill on Monday, May 8.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include information from ACLU Colorado. The correct date for when council vote on the bill has also been added.

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