Finally, a Break for the Middle Class!; Samaritans Beware | Essay | Chicago Reader

Finally, a Break for the Middle Class!; Samaritans Beware 

In the $140 million enterprise that is towing and ticketing in Chicago, the hardest-hit wards are the richest and the poorest.

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The recent City Council debate has concentrated on the plight of poor people whose cars get towed. But the two wards where cars get towed the most are the 42nd and the 2nd--two wealthy districts that run along the lakefront, from the Gold Coast to the near south side. I know this because Merlin Tripp, the computer expert who helped me with my recent property-tax stories, did a computer analysis of the latest raw data on towing the city keeps on its Web site. Coming in a distant second to the 42nd and 2nd--but still well ahead of the rest of the lakefront and the outlying northwest and southwest wards--are several of the city's poorest wards, on the west and south sides. Towing seems to be one of the rare city services that treats the rich and the poor almost the same.

According to city officials, cars get towed because they've been abandoned, stolen, used in a crime, booted for more than 24 hours, or left in a public way or tow zone. In the 42nd and 2nd wards cars are generally towed for the last two reasons. "We're the most densely populated areas--we have the most parking violations," says Burt Natarus, alderman of the 42nd Ward. "This is the central city. It's also a place where the most tourists come. We have the most cars. It has the most traffic violations."

Natarus says towing is a major public service, because it clears the streets so traffic can flow. "If we let cars pile up it would be gridlock," he says. "You'd be surprised where people leave their cars because they don't want to put them in a garage. They leave them in vacant lots. They leave them in alleys. They double-park them. They put them in bus lanes."

Towing is also a weapon in the fight against ticket scofflaws. Mayor Daley's particularly proud of this campaign. To hear him talk, folks simply stuffed parking tickets in their glove boxes until he took office and started booting their cars. Actually, Mayor Harold Washington was the one who started the booting program, though Daley definitely expanded it. He lowered the number of tickets needed to get booted from ten to three, and he sent revenue department crews into the streets, computers in hand, to check the license-plate numbers of cars, even if they were legally parked, in search of bootable ones.

Under Daley, booting and towing is as much about raising money as it is about clearing the streets. If you're booted you have 24 hours to pay the $150 booting fee and your tickets. If you don't pay your car gets towed. If it's towed the city adds a $150 towing fee to your booting fee and tickets. If you don't pick up your car within 24 hours you get hit with a storage fee. "It's hardest on poor people, because they don't have the cash or credit cards to pay off that boot," says Shirley Coleman, alderman of the 16th Ward, who's been pushing for relief for poor residents since 1997.

According to the October data Tripp crunched, the 42nd Ward had 887 cars towed and the 2nd Ward had 634; both wards are wealthy, and the 42nd happens to be predominantly white, the 2nd well integrated. The nondowntown wards with the highest number of towed cars were all poor: the 29th (446), 24th (445), 16th (441), 17th (359), 27th (349), 25th (330), 3rd (318), and 15th (259), all of which are predominantly black, except for the 25th, which is mostly Hispanic. The two wealthiest north-lakefront wards, the 43rd and 44th, had fewer tows: 198 for the 43rd and 117 for the 44th; both wards are also predominantly white.

The city keeps ward-by-ward towing data for only five months, so it's hard to know how long this pattern has existed. I asked Tripp to break down August's numbers, and the results were the same. Once again the 42nd and 2nd wards led the way (with 1,412 and 783 tows, respectively), and next were some of the same poor wards--the 29th, 27th, 24th, and 16th.

Why do the city's poor wards finish ahead of most of the wealthier ones? City officials say they're not picking on poor people. It's just that those wards have more cars that need to be towed. "There are more abandoned cars in the poor wards, and more cars involved in crimes in the poor wards," acknowledges one south-side aldermanic aide. But, he adds, "there's more cars with boots to be towed in the poor wards because poor people can't afford to pay to get off that boot--just like Shirley's been saying all these years."

Clearly the program needs a little tweaking if the city doesn't want to make driving prohibitively expensive for poor people. But you can't tell that to Daley, who's very touchy when it comes to criticism about towing.

Still, you've got to hand it to Daley--no other mayor, not even his father, ever raised so much money from towing and ticketing. In 2003 all these fees and fines added $140.6 million to the city's treasury. "He should just come out and call it what it is--a tax on driving," jokes the aldermanic aide. "He can say he's fighting pollution by making it too expensive to drive." (Of course if Daley wanted to fight pollution he'd also have to rescind the CTA service cuts and fare hikes and expand the schedule, but that's another story.)

As I wrote last week, Daley's determined to keep the ticket and towing money coming, especially now that the city's starved for cash. Last week, under pressure from several aldermen, he did agree to soften the punishment. A little.

Since last January the city has had a program that allows people to sign up to pay their parking tickets on an installment plan. To be eligible, you had to be getting Section 8 housing vouchers, food stamps, Medicaid, supplemental security income, or low-income home-energy assistance. Daley proposed expanding that plan to include people getting unemployment compensation.

But the plan itself didn't change, and unemployed scofflaws will soon discover that it doesn't give them much of a break. You still have to pay booting, towing, and storage fees, plus 25 percent or $250 (whichever is lower) of your parking-ticket debt, before you can get your car back. Then you pay off the rest of the debt on the installment plan. And you'd better not miss a payment. A revenue department Web message warns: "Anyone who defaults on this payment plan will be charged a $100 fee, be immediately placed on a boot or tow list and will be prohibited from entering the payment plan in the future."

In short, the installment plan doesn't help anyone who's broke. One businessman with experience in bankruptcy law told me that poor people would be better off just walking away from their cars than "getting involved in that racket."

Maybe. But when I called the city's parking-ticket hotline an operator told me with a chuckle, "We're not going to ignore your debt just because you walk away from your car. We will take you to court. We can garnish your wages. Eventually you will have to pay."

Samaritans Beware

Last Saturday morning I had to drive to the Gold Coast. I found a legal space near Lake Shore Drive, hopped out of the car, and was feeding the meter when a janitor from a nearby building walked up to me.

"Be careful," he said, pointing to a white revenue department van parked a block north, in which two agents sat with the engine running. He said he sees them every Saturday, writing tickets and calling trucks to tow away cars.

The janitor told me that he tries to feed expired meters as a courtesy to strangers, but he has to be careful--it's against the law to feed someone else's meter. The janitor said revenue agents have threatened to call the police if they see him doing it.

I was out before my meter expired. The janitor was gone, and as I pulled away I saw the revenue van coming down the block.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark S. Fisher.

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