Sandra Botello moved to Chicago five years ago for what she called “the opportunities.”
Now 41, she and her children had been evicted from her home in Idaho when her landlord’s property was foreclosed.
The move to Chicago indeed delivered opportunities. She earned an associates degree and then enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and now works as an executive administrative assistant downtown. And, two of her four kids snagged scholarships to private schools.
But her time in Chicago has also been mired with a major hurdle. It started with citations for the city road tax collected through “city stickers.” After failing to keep up with ticket payments, the city seized her car and sold it to a private towing company, only to have none of the sale price applied to her debt.
Botello is not alone.
According to a WBEZ analysis of thousands of towing records and invoices, the city regularly pulls residents into a nexus of ticket-related debt and car seizures that is stunning in its scope.
In 2017 alone, Chicago booted more than 67,000 vehicles for unpaid tickets. In about a third of those cases, the driver couldn’t afford to remove the boot, and the vehicle was later towed to a city impound lot.
Of those 20,000 impounded cars, more than 8,000 ended up like Botello’s: They were sold off, with the owners receiving none of the sale proceeds. Instead, the city and its towing contractor pocketed millions of dollars, while residents were left with ticket debt.
All told, there have been nearly 50,000 of these sales since 2011.
The vast majority of cars bound in these tow-and-sell operations hail from low-income and minority communities on Chicago’s West and South Sides, where experts have said residents are already hard-pressed to pay for effective transportation.
The city has a term for those who owe ticket money: “scofflaws.” It’s a Prohibition-era term that was applied to those who drank illegally — or flouting the law. City officials use the term regularly, conflating the inability to pay debts with criminal activity.
The road to becoming a Chicago scofflaw can be short, starting with workers or contractors sometimes issuing multiple tickets on the same day — against a city ordinance.
Fines accrued from just two or three outstanding tickets will prompt the city’s revenue workers to boot a car. Owners have just 24 hours to pay $100 to remove a boot; hitting that deadline can be difficult for unemployed or underemployed motorists, or those without access to quick credit. If the window’s missed, the car’s towed, and the owner becomes responsible for a $150 towing fee.
Once at the impound, cars can be sold in as little as three weeks, but not before drivers rack up storage and other fees.
Translation: A small financial hole can open into a massive chasm, as the city assesses fees that build each day.
Botello’s story illustrates how thousands of residents get caught in the trap.
She moved to Chicago in 2014. She drove her 2003 Lincoln Continental to her South Shore neighborhood and quickly purchased a city sticker and Illinois license plates. The sticker was only valid for three months, so the city prorated the $86 price to $57.
“I tried getting everything in order,” Botello said. “I like following the law.”
But Botello’s first few months were hard; she hadn’t found a job and was on the fence about whether Chicago was going to work out. Even though her son got a scholarship to Mount Carmel High School, a private school, they still had to pay a $400 registration fee.
She chose to pay for the school registration instead of renewing her city sticker.
That’s when the tickets started. Within 45 days, she received five city sticker citations — at $200 each.
Botello said she couldn’t cobble together enough for the sticker, “so I got another ticket, and I was just getting ticket after ticket.”
She eventually bought another sticker, she said, but “they charged me an additional $60 for being late.”
By this point, she couldn’t afford to pay her outstanding tickets on time. The city added late penalties and collections fees, for a total of $2,934.
According to towing data, Botello’s car was booted on March 16, 2015, and towed the following day — with a valid city sticker on the windshield….