BERKELEY — Finding a parking ticket tucked beneath your windshield wipers can ruin almost anyone’s day.
But for low-income residents already struggling to make ends meet, that expensive piece of paper is more than just a financial slap on the wrist.
In an effort to help the city’s most financially vulnerable drivers navigate their way out of these debts, Berkeley officials voted last week to reform the exorbitant fees and fines that come along with parking tickets, permits and towing services across the city.
Parking tickets in Berkeley range from $43 for an expired meter and $57 for lingering too long in a commercial zone, to a hefty $225 for wrongly parking in residential permit zones during Cal football game days and $317 for illegally using disabled spaces.
Historically, the number of violations doled out each year outnumbers the city’s population of 117,145.
In 2021, the Berkeley Police Department issued 119,075 citations and generated more than $3.5 million in parking fees for the general fund, according to city data. Last year, more than 137,000 tickets collected upwards of $4.7 million.
These fees — particularly when they start compounding and spiraling out of control when not paid on time — can drive people further into poverty. And if people end up having to give up their vehicles as a result, they often also lose access to jobs, education, medical care and other vital resources.
Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who authored the report, said that while parking regulations do help maintain safe streets, he’s seen firsthand how punitive, outdated regulations have disproportionately harmed low-income constituents in his district on the city’s south side near UC Berkeley.
“I believe deeply that city government should not be in the business of pushing people further into debt and poverty,” Robinson said in a statement. “These reforms represent a step toward a more compassionate transportation system in Berkeley.”
The work to lessen the inequitable impacts of these kinds of fines took root years ago in San Francisco, but similar efforts have since trickled across the country — stretching from Seattle to Chicago to Durham, North Carolina.
In Berkeley, expanded eligibility for monthly payment plans, reduced late fees and waived first-time tow offenses were some of the biggest changes approved — without discussion or pushback — during the Jan. 31 Berkeley City Council meeting.
Robinson pointed out that the city’s $66 residential parking permit may be dramatically more affordable than the hundreds of dollars that unpaid tickets rack up, especially for those who have no other choice than to park on city streets while at work or home.
His legislation — tapping recommendations from the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force and the Health, Life Enrichment, Equity, & Community Policy Committee — removed barriers that previously prohibited people from purchasing such a permit if they had unpaid tickets issued more than 21 days earlier or were enrolled in one of the city’s “Indigent Payment Plans.”
Additionally, applications for those monthly payment plans — to help pay back up to $500 within 24 months — are now open to anyone in households earning less than 50% of Alameda County’s area median income. Residents eligible for an IPP can also avoid the consequences of unpaid tickets like late fees and vehicle registration holds.
For a family of four, that’s an increase from the previous federal threshold of $27,750 to $68,500 — a dramatic change that better reflects the Bay Area’s increasingly high cost of living.
For single individuals, eligibility was bumped from $13,590 to $47,950 annually.
Robinson’s proposal also included asking City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley’s office to explore how to continue reforming Berkeley’s fees and fines. Future options could include waiving towing costs for unhoused residents, allowing undocumented immigrants to enroll in payment plans and expanding eligibility to households that earn 80% or even 100% of the median income.
While Robinson is more frequently cited for his work to improve bike lanes, walkability and transportation options that help people get around Berkeley without vehicles, Angie Chen, a legislative aide in his office, said their latest effort seeks to create more equitable streets for all residents.
“It’s still true that you shouldn’t park in a bike lane or double-park on our streets, but I think there’s a way for the city to figure out how to keep these regulations in place without having to resort to punitive approaches,” Chen said Friday. “We’re interested in looking at ways that we can design our streets to be safe, as opposed to using enforcement to make our streets safe.”
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