By Erica C. Barnett
Drive through Seattle’s industrial areas—Georgetown, South Park, parts of Ballard, and SoDo—and it’s hard to miss them: Bulky, horizontal concrete blocks lined up like giant Legos along the sides of the street, preventing large vehicles from parking by the roadside.
At Third and Brandon in Georgetown, around the corner from the headquarters of the LGBTQ+ health care organization Lifelong, a row of bright-white barricades prevent any vehicle longer than a passenger van from parking on the street. Along a quiet, wide stretch of road near West Marginal Way in South Park, graffiti is just starting to pop up on an older, graying line of blocks set a dozen feet apart across a chain-link fence from a modern apartment building.
The blocks, known as “ecology blocks” because they’re made of waste material that concrete producers would otherwise throw away, are there to prevent large vehicles—primarily RVs—from parking in front of businesses. They started proliferating in industrial areas, which are the only areas where Seattle allows RVs to park overnight, during the pandemic, when the city suspended rules requiring people to move their vehicles every 72 hours.
Equinox Studios owner Sam Farrazaino, who says the blocks have given his neighborhood the feel of a “war zone,” has installed a number of the blocks around land he owns in Georgetown, although he says he used his “eco blocks” to “define parking” for his business, painted them to make them more attractive, and did not put them in the public right-of-way. “It’s a complicated… debate,” said Farrazaino, who described a rat infestation on a lot surrounded with RVs that made the ground look like “a moving carpet.” On the other hand, he said, “We keep pushing people around and saying we solved the problem, but the end result of the people with the power and land being able to push out that people that don’t have power and don’t have land is terrible.”‘
Although most of the debate about unsheltered homelessness centers on people living in tents in so-called “unauthorized encampments” (in Seattle, there is no other kind), about a quarter of people living without shelter in the city live in RVs, which are only allowed to park overnight in industrial areas. The city dedicates few resources to helping this group, who are often seen as less vulnerable than tent residents and are unlikely to “accept” the city’s offers of shelter, because even so-called enhanced shelters, which are open during the day and allow people to bring their partners and pets, provide less privacy and autonomy than the most rundown RV.
Years of efforts by advocates and city council members to create “safe lots” for RV residents have been unsuccessful, thanks largely to neighborhood objections that have made it difficult to site lots for ordinary cars and trucks, much less RVs. And while the city council recently allocated $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds could create safe parking spaces for between 20 and 30 RVs, that represents a tiny fraction of the need; according to the most recent count of homeless people in King County, nearly 1,000 people were living in RVs, and vehicular homelessness expert Graham Pruss, an academic researcher who has advised the city on the needs of people living in vehicles, says the true number is likely much higher.
“The reality is that the people who live in the vehicles and the people who own the businesses who are angry about the vehicles are all subject to the same problem: There is not a private place for the person who lives in that vehicle to park, and if they don’t have a place to park, they are forced to occupy that public street,” Pruss said.
Compounding the conflict, the city has used laws and informal policies, such as “No Parking 2-5 AM” signs, to push RVs deeper into nonresidential areas, usually far away from frequent transit lines, hygiene centers, and agencies that provide resources like job assistance and addiction treatment.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city would stop enforcing the 72-hour parking rule so that people could work from home; one year later, she announced she was reinstating the regulation, forcing people who had been living in one place for a year or more to get their vehicles in working order or risk losing them.
Homeless service providers say the suspension of the rule had positive effects for vehicle residents, who didn’t have to deal with the daily stress of finding another place to park. “It was nice for them to have a reprieve where they didn’t have to move every 72 hours, where they could be in place and connect to service providers from one location and get more accomplished,” said Rebecca Gilley, the SoDo outreach coordinator for the homeless outreach group REACH.
But it also led to increased conflicts with nearby business owners, who complained that people occupying space on the street were making it impossible for customers to park, committing crimes, and causing unhealthy and unsanitary conditions around their vehicles.
“There were folks who were here for a year and a half, blocking the whole sidewalk on both sides and blocking part of the travel lanes with all the stuff they had accumulated” around their RV, Farrazaino said. “If it was a house and the living conditions were the same as these, the county and the city would have shut it down and condemned the house.”
Placing ecology blocks or boulders in the public right-of-way without permission, as many businesses have done, is illegal under city law; theoretically, anyone who does so can be fined up to $4,000 for each individual violation.
The problem is, the blocks are cheap to put in place and expensive to remove. Farrazaino said he paid about $20 apiece for his ecology blocks, which he bought from Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel in Ballard. The biggest expense, he added, was moving them. “We drove back and forth to Salmon Bay with a big rental truck to get the ones we have here,” Farrazaino said. “It’s just a matter of moving them around with a forklift that can handle it.”
Removing the blocks would require the city to devote money, manpower, and storage space to addressing the problem, plus enforcement to ensure the blocks don’t come back. “Part of the challenge is that each ecology blocks weighs 1-2 tons, and more blocks continue appearing in new areas,” Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Ethan Bergerson said. “Removing these massive obstructions is costly and our employees are busy completing important work to maintain our streets and infrastructure.”
Mariajose Barrera, who owns Mose Auto in Georgetown, said she installed ecology blocks near her business because of “the garbage, the nuisance, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampments.” For example, she said, someone parked a large box truck outside her auto shop for several weeks and was using it to hold stolen goods; more recently, someone broke into her shop and stole thousands of dollars’ worth of tools.
“We’ve been working to be able to have parking for our own businesses and kind of deter people from long-term parking, because the garbage, the nuisances, the crime that goes around some of the homeless encampment—it’s really rough.” Barrera said. Seattle Public Utilities provides garbage pickup and sewage pump-out services to some RVs through its RV remediation and pump-out programs, but the utility can’t serve every site, so garbage, sewage, and gas and chemical spills remain persistent problems.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had set up these eco blocks because we’re not getting any other help from the city,” Barrera continued. “It’s unfair—we all work for our stuff and for these people to just come in take whatever they want, whenever they want, without any accountability is not okay.”
Part of his frustration, Farrazaino said, stems from the fact that the city has pushed people living in RVs into industrial areas, which make up just 12 percent of the city’s land. Gentrification in places like SoDo and industrial Ballard, where breweries and retail storefronts are overtaking traditional industrial businesses, has constrained options for vehicle residents even further; you’re less likely to get hassled or swept if you live next to a steel fabrication plant than in front of a popular bar. The result is more conflicts between RV residents and businesses in places like Georgetown and South Park, and the proliferation of barricades to keep them from coming back.
“SoDo is pushing everyone down here [to Georgetown] because they have a [business improvement area] and money to hire security,” Farrazaino said. A business advocacy group might give Georgetown or South Park more clout with the city; Erin Goodman, the director of the SoDo BIA, has pushed the city to crack down on RVs from the area for years, arguing that the presence of people living in vehicles has contributed to crime and filth in the area.
“I think there’s a really strong environmental racism element to this,” Pruss said. “Pushing this vulnerable population into South Seattle hasn’t reduced the number of people living in RVs; it has decrease the amount of space, which has created more dense communities of people which are more easily targeted by law enforcement.”
Barrera, from Mose Auto, said that even though she felt compelled to install the barriers around her own business, the blocks are “not a solution to anything. They’re just going to move to another area. We have to find solutions and we have to find them together. We can’t just way we’re going to put eco blocks everywhere. That’s trying to hide the sun with a finger—it’s not going to work.”
Pruss believes the solutions are simple, if challenging to implement. Instead of telling people they must relocate constantly or abandon their last asset and move into a shelter, he said, the city should create modestly scaled safe lots where people can park their vehicles without being harassed or told to move, and provide services that are tailored to the broad range of circumstances that lead people to live in their vehicles.
“Many of the programs that have been developed to date have not followed the common knowledge and what we understand about social services, which is that you meet people where they’re at—if that’s a family, you work with family services. If it’s someone who is in a mental health crisis or a substance use crisis, you work with services oriented toward that,” Pruss said. To do that at scale, however, will require the city to stop thinking of “homeless people” as an undifferentiated monolith, and to expand its focus to include unsheltered people who are less visible but scarcely less vulnerable than those living in tents.