SFMTA Changes Debt Towing Policies in Response to Lawsuit, Promising New Protections for Vehicularly Housed San Franciscans


October 6, 2021 

Media Contact

Sam Lew, 415-272-8022, slew@lccrsf.org  

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area  


SFMTA Changes Debt Towing Policies in Response to Lawsuit, Promising New Protections for Vehicularly Housed San Franciscans 

Vehicles of unhoused individuals will no longer be booted or towed for unpaid parking tickets, SFMTA declares, following a lawsuit by the Coalition on Homelessness that wrapped this week in San Francisco Superior Court. 

SAN FRANCISCO – A San Francisco Superior Court case wrapped this week against the City of San Francisco, SFMTA, and SFPD for their practice of towing safely and legally parked vehicles solely because the owner has late parking citations. On June 8, 2021, the Coalition on Homelessness filed a motion that would force the City to end these debt tows—which only compound the struggles of homeless and low-income people who already cannot afford to pay. But before the case was heard this summer, the City did a major overhaul of its policies to limit its harmful debt tows. Following a decision from the San Francisco Superior Court recognizing the extent of these changes, judgment was entered in favor of the City on October 4, 2021. 

This summer, the City responded to the suit by dramatically shifting its debt towing policies. Two high ranking SFMTA officials, SFMTA Director of Parking Enforcement Shawn McCormick and SFMTA Senior Manager of Revenue and Sales Diana Hammons, announced the new changes in sworn declarations submitted to the San Francisco Superior Court. The City will:  

  • Not boot or tow a homeless person’s vehicle (a vehicular shelter) merely for late unpaid parking citations 
  • Not tow a vehicle with equal or less than $2500 in late parking citations, instead giving the owner 72 hours to resolve late tickets  
  • Mail a written notice to all vehicle owners when they have 4 or 5 late parking citations, thereby ensuring that vehicle owners get some notice before their car is towed.  
  • Implement a variety of new “low-income” discount programs and payment programs to reduce parking fees for low-income people, and fees after a tow. 

These new policies — if followed — mark a sea-change in the City’s approach to poverty tows, and ensure that unhoused people will not lose their only form of shelter if they are not able to pay their parking tickets. But notwithstanding these major shifts, poverty tows are still very much part of SFMTA’s operating procedures. More is required to hold the City to account for this harmful practice—and to make sure it actually follows the new safeguards it has put in place.  

San Francisco tows vehicles with five or more unpaid parking tickets, seizing two to four thousand vehicles each year for debt collection, even though all the data shows that towing costs the City more than they recover.  

Worst of all, these tows disrupt the lives of the City’s low-income and unhoused people. Many cannot afford to pay the astronomical fees charged to retrieve their vehicle after a tow and, as a result, permanently lose their vehicle, means of employment, and in the worst-case scenarios, their homes–just over a few parking tickets. The Coalition on Homelessness’ lawsuit alleged that San Francisco’s debt towing practices violated the California Constitution because these tows are an unreasonable seizure and its procedures did not provide due process.  

 “Local grassroots efforts and advocates have been working for years to alleviate the harms of these tows, and the City made these useful changes in response to our lawsuit that could provide relief to thousands of vehicularly housed and low-income San Franciscans,” said Elisa Della Piana, Legal Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “If the SFMTA does not follow these new policies, we will hold them to account. And, there is more work to do.”  

“Nearly 2,000 people live in their vehicles. Hundreds have lost their only form of shelter simply because they are unable to pay for their parking tickets. That the SFMTA will no longer tow unhoused people for unpaid parking tickets is a big victory,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “But we must continue to fight for the rights of vehicularly housed and low-income San Franciscans–who the SFMTA continues to target and tow in many other ways.”  

The Coalition on Homelessness is represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), Bay Area Legal Aid, and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP.  

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the SF Bay Area (LCCRSF) will be monitoring the implementation of SFMTA’s changed policies. If anyone experiences a debt tow that is in violation of SFMTA’s new policies, they are encouraged to contact rjpcoordinator@lccrsf.org or  (415) 543-9444 x 232.  


View SFMTA Director of Parking Enforcement Shawn McCormick’s declaration here.  

View SFMTA Senior Manager of Revenue and Sales Diana Hammon’s declaration here.  

View the Motion for Writ of Mandate here.  

View the Complaint here.