Home / Blog / Its lot full, St. Louis struggles to tow derelict cars. Residents are boiling.

Its lot full, St. Louis struggles to tow derelict cars. Residents are boiling.

Aug 29, 2023Aug 29, 2023

"I've been here too long to have to live like this," said Barbara Furnace as she sits with her son, who declined to give his name, on the front porch of their home in the 1400 block of Belt Avenue, looking over an inoperable SUV in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Furnace said she has complained to the city numerous times during recent years about abandoned cars on her street. The vehicle has a violation warning on its side citing no license plates, that it is inoperable and that it is continuously parked in the spot.

ST. LOUIS — One of the first things Helen Money sees when she wakes up in the morning is the black car across the street.

A violation notice is attached to a Toyota SUV in the 1400 block of Belt Avenue on Thursday, May 25, 2023. The violation cites no license plates, that it is inoperable and that it is continuously parked in the spot, and will be towed if not moved.

She's told the city about the old Cutlass Supreme, an eyesore with flat tires and the passenger door caving in. City workers even came to her corner of Walnut Park East to put a tow sticker on it once. But it's been months. The sticker's been peeled off.

"I’m constantly calling the city," said Money, 63. "And they constantly do nothing."

It's a familiar refrain for residents across St. Louis. Staffing shortages, combined with a cramped impound lot and a rise in incoming Kias and Hyundais, have badly hobbled the towing operation in recent years. City data indicates it's taking weeks longer for complaints to be addressed. And a host of aldermen say they see it every day in their neighborhoods.

"I ride around and take pictures of them with no plates, with steering wheels busted, with the windows out," said Alderwoman Pam Boyd, of the northwest side. "But it takes forever to get the cars towed."

Meanwhile, the clunkers have been piling up across the city. There were more than 700 on the streets as of Tuesday morning, taking up valuable parking space, reducing curb appeal and trying the patience of residents already dealing with trash pickup that comes days late and a 911 dispatch system that puts callers on hold.

"I’m to the point where I just want to sell the house and go," said Money, whose roots in her neighborhood go back 50 years.

A wrecked car sits in front of a duplex in the 3300 block of California Avenue in the Benton Park West neighborhood on Thursday, May 25, 2023. A violation sticker had been scraped from the vehicle.

Nick Dunne, a spokesperson for Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, said the administration is working on it. Streets Department leaders are pushing for higher wages and better benefits for tow truck drivers to improve recruitment and retention and seeing more interest from job seekers in recent months. They are also looking for more space to store cars and working to clear out the existing lot through regular auctions and negotiations with police, who park cars that are part of criminal investigations there.

"It's starting to look promising that we will get this work done," Streets Director Betherny Williams told aldermen at a recent budget hearing.

The city's Auto Towing and Storage Division is effectively a heavy-duty street cleaner, charged with evicting more than 10,000 vehicles from the roads each year. Its drivers handle cars deemed abandoned, derelict, hazardous or inoperable as well as vehicles that are stolen, in accidents or involved in crimes. It sells about one-third of its quarry at auction, bringing in millions of dollars every year.

A Dodge Avenger with a Mississippi license plate and covered with fading parking tickets sits in front of a home in the 4300 block of Osceola Street in the Bevo Mill neighborhood on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Two other cars in the immediate vicinity were also covered with parking tickets. A neighbor said they haven't moved in months. Photo by Robert Cohen, [email protected]

For the average resident, getting a car towed is supposed to work like this: A call, email or online complaint is made to the Citizens’ Service Bureau reporting the existence of a derelict, hazardous or abandoned vehicle. A Streets Department inspector is dispatched to verify the report within five days, and, if the citizen's account is accurate, the inspector places a brightly colored sticker on the car's window giving the owner 14 days to move before the vehicle is hooked up and hauled off.

But residents, aldermen and neighborhood leaders say the system is broken. It took roughly 50 days, on average, to investigate towing-related complaints last year, according to data from Citizens’ Service Bureau. From 2017-19, that number was closer to 10. And even in 2020, it was roughly 22. Dunne, the mayor's spokesman, said CSB data may not be entirely accurate the work is not necessarily reported in real time.

Still, even after vehicles are inspected and tagged, many aldermen and residents say they measure their waits in months, not weeks.

Those delays have coincided with declines in staffing: A decade ago, the Streets Department had 16 tow truck drivers, according to budget data. In early 2019, it had 11. In early 2022, it had six people picking up cars.

Dunne said part of the problem was a yearlong hiring freeze imposed early in the pandemic that allowed vacancies to pile up into one of the tightest labor markets in recent memory. Officials have also said a pay scale that starts new drivers at about $15.50 per hour can't compete with the private sector.

A 1983 Cutlass Supreme sits wrecked in front of a home in the 4700 block of Plover Avenue in the Walnut Park East neighborhood on Thursday, May 25, 2023. An unidentified man came out of his house while it was being photographed and claimed to own the car. Photo by Robert Cohen, [email protected]

And even if the city can get more drivers, there's often nowhere to put the cars. Williams, the streets department director, said the impound lot on Hall Street, on the north riverfront, is designed to hold about 900 but late last year, had more than 1,200.

"Literally, cars are almost stacked on top of each other, bumper to bumper," she told aldermen in December.

Some of that may also be related to the astronomical increase in stolen vehicles in the city in the past year. Reports of such crimes, driven by viral news of security flaws in popular Kia and Hyundai models, jumped 79% from 2021 to 2022.

As a result, the city has had to triage, leaving some cars on the street — and residents to steam.

Barbara Furnace, 66, said she's been complaining about derelict cars on her street in Hamilton Heights for more than a year. The current struggle is with a red SUV with a busted fender that Furnace said has been sitting up on a jack for months.

City workers put a sticker on it — warning it would be towed after May 23.

"It's crazy," Furnace said. "People are paying their taxes, doing everything right, and half the time you have nowhere to park."

William Hersman, 47, has the same problem. He's been waiting for the city to pick up a pair of broken-down cars in front of his house in the Baden neighborhood for at least six months. One is missing a headlight and a fender and has parts of its undercarriage lying on the ground. The other has a smashed rear window and a ceiling coming apart. Neither has plates, not even a temp tag.

"It seems like they wait until they’re all stripped before they get ’em," Hersman said. "It's kind of crazy."

Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, of Kingsway East, said it's especially discouraging to the homeowners who have stuck it out in the northside neighborhoods she represents, where towing woes are the latest indignity for people already enduring high rates of crime, vacancy and disinvestment.

"They buy into the American Dream," she said. "And they get a nightmare for city services."

City Hall has repeatedly assured aldermen that change is coming. New drivers have signed on, boosting ranks back up to a dozen. The city is looking to purchase land to store cars. Williams, the streets director, said she would even consider contracting out some towing services, at least temporarily.

And at the existing lot, Dunne said staff have been working with police to clear out more than 300 vehicles that were being held for investigations that have been over for a while.

Dunne said employees are also working to more quickly notify owners of towed vehicles so they can reclaim them faster.

Aldermen, for their part, are also talking about potential solutions in the upcoming budget. Budget Chair Cara Spencer recently asked Williams to put together figures on how much money the department will need to buy more space and be a more competitive employer.

"There's a whole host of things missing there," Spencer said.

Robert Cohen has been a staff photographer at the Post-Dispatch for 23 years. His work following unrest in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown was part of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Photography awarded to the photo staff. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2010 for work documenting the plight of homeless families living in suburban motels during the recession. Most recently in 2021 he was a finalist for 'Photographer of the Year' in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

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Austin Huguelet is the Post-Dispatch's City Hall reporter. He previously covered business for the Post-Dispatch and state politics for the Springfield News-Leader. He can be reached at (314) 340-8320.

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