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Image by Vladimir Solomyani



Amid the pandemic, one-third of U.S. adults say they are having difficulty covering everyday costs such as food, rent, or car payments. Just 39 percent of Americans can afford a $1,000 unexpected expense. Having one’s car towed is often such an unforeseen cost and, for many people, goes beyond recovery fees and can lead to increased debt, loss of mobility for employment or essential life functions, or even being deprived of their home. These outcomes are particularly likely in communities of color and hurt local economies.

Millions of cars in the United States are impounded each year for reasons not related to criminality or public safety. A 2019 report found that of the roughly one million vehicles towed by public agencies in California, more than 25 percent were executed because the owner had unpaid parking tickets, a vehicle registration had lapsed, or they were parked in the same spot for more than 72 hours. In San Francisco, 50 percent of cars towed for these three reasons are never recovered. On average, it costs just over $1,000 to retrieve a car after paying the tickets, potentially renewing the registration, and then paying the tow and impound fees.

Losing a car can have devastating effects, including loss of employment. Seventy-six percent of Americans commute to work by driving. In some cities, the gentrification of many historically low-income neighborhoods has forced low-income renters to move farther away from city centers where public transportation options are sparse, increasing their commute time and car dependence. Losing a car can take away an individual’s ability to work and access education, not only for themselves, but also for their families. For the growing number of individuals experiencing vehicular homelessness, a towed car can lead to loss of shelter, possessions, mobility, and likelihood of recovering financially.

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