Towing for Dollars in Alameda 

Since 2013, more than 1,400 vehicles have been towed from one West End apartment complex by one company: PPI Towing.

click to enlarge Nearly half of all cars towed in Alameda since 2013 occurred at Summer House. - PHOTO BY PAUL HAGGARD
  • Photo by Paul Haggard
  • Nearly half of all cars towed in Alameda since 2013 occurred at Summer House.

Gene Tsar lived at the Summer House Apartments in Alameda for a year and a half. But one evening in October 2017, Tsar left his apartment to go to work only to find that his car was not in the complex's parking lot. Tsar had a permit to park in the lot, so he thought his vehicle had been stolen. He called Alameda police, but they had no information. He then noticed a sign in the Summer House parking lot from Private Property Impound Inc., or PPI Towing.

Tsar called PPI's number, and a staff member said his car had been towed the night before because he allegedly had a "fake permit." Tsar Uber'd to PPI's East Oakland storage yard to get his car back. But front desk staff told him he would have to pay for two days of storage: 10 minutes for Tuesday night and all day Wednesday.

Tsar told them he had a valid permit to park at Summer House. But because it was after 6 p.m. and Summer House's leasing office was closed, PPI said they could not verify his permit. "This is ridiculous!" Tsar said he told PPI staff. "Tomorrow, I'm going to Summer House and explain how you're robbing us."

Tsar was prepared to pay PPI for the towing fees, but company staffers said that they wouldn't release his vehicle until he gave them his parking permit for Summer House — which Tsar said was in his car at the time. Because PPI wouldn't release his vehicle, he called Oakland police. But when police officers arrived, PPI refused to show them the contract that the company had with Summer House to tow cars, Tsar said. Finally, because Tsar wouldn't give them his keys, PPI towed his car out of the garage. "When they tow it out, there's no permit in the car. They broke into the car!" he said.

According to Tsar, PPI owner Wayne D. Russo told him, "The car was unlocked, I can do whatever I want." Russo also claimed the permit did not belong to Tsar, but to Summer House. When Tsar contacted Summer House representatives, they apologized but said that they did not authorize the tow, so he'd have to deal with PPI on his own, he said.

And Tsar is not alone. In fact, public records show that hundreds of Alamedans, many of them residents of Summer House, the Island's largest apartment complex, have had their cars towed by PPI during the past five years.

Through a California Public Records Act request, the Express obtained five years of calls for service dispatches from the Alameda Police Department. Dispatch records include the date, time of day, address of a tow, and the towing company's name. From 2013 through 2017, Alameda police received 2,799 calls about towed vehicles, an average of more than 559 per year, not including police-initiated tows. (State law requires towing companies to notify local law enforcement each time a vehicle is removed from private property.) An analysis with mapping software reveals that nearly half of all cars towed on the Island during this period originated at Summer House.

And since 2013, one towing company has towed more than 1,400 vehicles from that West End community: PPI. Records also show that the company has towed at least 2,786 vehicles, or 73 percent of all private tows in Alameda, since 2013.

And many residents say PPI towed their cars unlawfully.

It's unclear when PPI received the exclusive authorization from Summer House to tow vehicles there. Police records show that from 2013 to September of this year, PPI towed 1,406 vehicles from the complex. In 2013 alone, 54 percent of all private tows on the Island occurred at Summer House, a total of 298 vehicles.

PPI towed 189 vehicles from Summer House in 2014, 287 in 2015, 233 in 2016, 235 in 2017, and 164 through the first week of September 2018, police records show. Meanwhile, PPI has expanded its business throughout Alameda. While PPI towed only 81 vehicles outside of Summer House in 2013, the company towed at least 88 so far this year.

PPI now has contracts with other West End residential communities, including the Ballena Village on Central Avenue and VUE Alameda (formerly the Atlantic Apartments) on Poggi Street, across from Summer House. Still, records suggest PPI's most lucrative business in Alameda is at Summer House.

So why is PPI towing so many vehicles from one apartment complex? Onsite property management staff referred inquiries to Martin Zamora, property manager with Pinnacle Property Management Services. The Walnut Creek-based company is the property manager for Blackstone Real Estate, the property's owner. Zamora did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment, and did not show up for a scheduled interview at the Poggi Street leasing center. Pinnacle manages both Summer House and the nearby VUE Alameda property.

PPI's owner, Russo, also did not respond to multiple emails and calls to PPI's Oakland headquarters.

Under state laws that govern and regulate towing, parking lots must have signage with specific dimensions at entrances indicating that vehicles can be towed. A vehicle can only be towed from private property if authorized by a property owner or commercial tenant, an agent of the site, or a tenant of an apartment building with less than 15 units that doesn't have an onsite manager. That person has to be onsite at the time of the tow to verify the violation and sign a written authorization for each vehicle removed, according to state law. There is an exception: when a property owner has signed a "general authorization" with the towing company. However, in that circumstance, a vehicle can only be removed if parked within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, in a fire lane, or in a way that obstructs the entrance or exit.


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