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Abandoned Cars Cause Crime, Not Just Blight

Abandoned vehicles have long been a problem in Oakland. The city has increased resources and manpower to address not just cars but the illegal activity they encourage.

Oakland, a city of 433,000, has more than 17,000 cars abandoned every year.
(Photos by Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
There’s a sign on Bancroft Avenue in East Oakland promising that hundreds of new housing units are coming, plus retail. At first glance, it looks unlikely. The sign is next to a vacant lot, once home to a hardware store and other amenities, that's been fenced in and flattened and is presently occupied by nothing but weeds. It’s not the condition of the parcel that makes development seem like a stretch, however. It’s the condition of the vehicles surrounding it.

There are busted up cars and a series of camper vans in various states of disrepair. Stretches of sidewalk have been turned into a combination dumping ground and living room, choked with chairs, soda bottles, pet carriers, car seats and a pile of old shoes. Visiting the site on a spring day, Loren Taylor, who represents the area on the Oakland, Calif., City Council, notes that conditions were worse a few days earlier. Since then, a tow sweep has removed about two dozen abandoned vehicles ringing the vacant lot.

“This is essentially littering in our streets,” Taylor says. “It adds to the blight and lowers the value of the area, when I’m trying to convince folks to come and establish businesses here.”

Abandoned cars are a major concern in Oakland, a city of 433,000 that receives reports of more than 17,000 abandoned vehicles a year. Not only do they contribute to blight — and semi-permanently occupy parking spaces in a city that has grown 10 percent over the past decade — but they create other, bigger problems.

They provide off-site storage for all manner of illicit items, including drugs and stolen goods, as well as turning into inadequate and unsafe shelter for homeless individuals. “People are anxious to see value created in this space, as opposed to simply attracting vehicles,” Taylor says. “It’s been proven that the more you take care of an area — beautify, clean it up — the more others do the same and respect it and aren’t going to bring it down by dumping or leaving abandoned vehicles.”

Oakland is not alone. Neighboring cities — and, indeed, the state of California itself — have set up abandoned vehicle abatement programs or established multi-agency task forces to address the issue. Across the country, Philadelphia faces a backlog of more than 30,000 abandoned vehicles.
Council member Loren Taylor wants to see development in his East Oakland district but has to fight abandoned cars and other blight.
(Alan Greenblatt)
“These abandoned cars, over time they become playhouses for illegal activity, like drug sales and prostitution and other kinds of negative activity that are not conducive to a safe and clean community,” says Cherelle Parker, who just stepped down from the Philadelphia City Council to run for mayor. “You know, you don't go into a safe neighborhood and see abandoned cars all over the place. You just don't. It's not there.”

Oakland is trying a new approach. Traditionally, addressing the problem has been the responsibility — but not a top priority — of the police department. Only three police service technicians were responsible for all the abandoned cars in the city. Frequently, they were pulled away to perform other duties. “The staff that would normally address a broken-down vehicle in your neighborhood were spending half of their week working with the (homeless) encampment team,” says Joe DeVries, a deputy city administrator.

This summer, the City Council made abandoned vehicles the responsibility of the transportation department, authorizing 10 employees to tackle the issue. The change grew out of recommendations from a group that sought to reimagine policing after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, asking which responsibilities could be shifted out of the police department. But it was also a recognition that abandoned cars needed more attention and resources than they’d been getting.

“A partially operable abandoned vehicle invites crime and blight,” DeVries says. “Some of them are full of garbage and they attract rats and vermin. It sends the neighborhood a message that we don’t care, and that’s the wrong message to send.”

Problems in the Flatlands

Oakland’s growth has been fueled by newcomers priced out of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. At this point, rents in Oakland, which long had a reputation as the Bay Area’s blue-collar town, now match and even exceed prices in San Francisco. The city is divided between affluent neighborhoods that climb the hills and low-income areas in the “flatlands” closer to the bay.

White people make up a third of the city’s population, while African Americans — who accounted for 47 percent of Oakland residents in 1980 — are now just 22.7 percent. Hispanics, Asians, American Indians and mixed-race individuals collectively account for about 43 percent. Residents say that abandoned cars, along with other social ills, disproportionately affect Black and brown neighborhoods in the flatlands.
This summer, the city council made the transportation department responsible for abandoned cars and increased the number of employees tackling the issue.
(Alan Greenblatt)
“It contributes to a lack of vibrancy in our community,” says Treva Reid, who represents West Oakland on the City Council. “It’s troubling when you come home to these issues every day.”

It’s all part of the “we don’t care/anything goes” dynamic DeVries describes and the city hopes to avoid. When it comes to abandoned cars — the second-leading source of complaint calls to Oakland’s 311 system — residents grow frustrated quickly and then have plenty of time to stay mad. “The official wait time is 53 days, but we have people who say they’ve waited for months,” Reid says. “Many say it’s been five to six months.”

Transferring responsibility to the Department of Transportation and devoting more manpower should help, but the city also needs to address the “root causes” of abandoned cars, Taylor says. Stepping up parking enforcement is one step, he says, but the city also needs to create some system of accountability for the auction houses that sell cars to people on the cheap, who in turn dump them after they stop running or they’ve been stripped for usable parts. Additionally, the city might track the VIN back to the original owner and, if he or she hasn’t reported it stolen, levy some penalty if it’s abandoned.

It's not a coincidence, Taylor says, that the vacant lot along Bancroft Avenue is surrounded by car repair shops, some legitimate and some not. “We’ve got a couple of other auto shops that unfortunately contribute to the blight on the streets,” he says.

Taking Steps to Clean Up

There have been times when sworn police officers have had to accompany tow-truck operators, Taylor says, to head off conflicts with people who did not want a vehicle taken or towed. Things play out differently in upscale neighborhoods such as Rockridge and Montclair, where residents will sometimes go out and take pictures of tow-truck operators who try to dump cars on their streets.

Keisha Henderson lives about a mile west of the vacant lot on Bancroft Avenue. She says there have been cars sitting on her block for as long as a year at a time. “When I call, I have to say it’s been here six months, just to get it moving,” she says.

Her neighbors have tried to take certain matters into their own hands. At least four of them have set out orange cones to hold parking spaces for themselves. Henderson helped one of her neighbors across the street get a disabled parking zone approved and painted. She takes pride as she points out the wine barrels containing newly planted trees and the mural painted on the side of the shop at the corner. The beautification effort she’s led over the past couple of years has helped draw people out of their houses and kids out on their bikes.
Keisha Henderson says beautification efforts have helped revitalize her block.
(Alan Greenblatt)
But she still gets frustrated at the slow or limited responses she gets from the city when it comes to abandoned cars and other nuisance issues. “Our words are not even being heard,” Henderson says. “You get ignored because you live in a certain area. There's always an excuse for the flatlands in Oakland. For communities that are predominantly Black and brown, there's always an excuse for why we have to, I would say, tolerate crimes and crimes that are small, like if we call in and say they keep dropping abandoned vehicles over here.”

It’s a variation on the broken-windows theory of policing. If you tolerate small crimes, big crimes may follow. In the case of abandoned vehicles, it’s almost cause and effect. “They keep dropping abandoned vehicles over there and they’re putting things in them,” Henderson says. “They’re putting things in a car and random people are coming up and picking things up. They can get into fights and shootings and this and that.”

Having to wait months to address the problem is too much. Sometimes, cars sit for so long that by the time a tow truck comes out, they’re “gone on arrival,” meaning technicians are wasting 40 to 50 percent of the time they’re actually out on the road.

Taylor and other city officials are now hoping that the switch in agency responsibility and the additional manpower will help clear up the backlog. “We have tried to be very data-driven and data-oriented with this response,” Taylor says, “as opposed to simply playing cat-and-mouse.”
Oakland's epidemic of abandoned cars has become a variation on the broken-windows theory of policing. If you tolerate small crimes, big crimes may follow.
(Alan Greenblatt)
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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