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.

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  • Photo by Rasheed Shabazz

Most cars towed by PPI from Summer House appear to be towed between midnight and 4 a.m., the Express analysis of police records show. In 2013, PPI towed more vehicles from Summer House between the midnight and 4 a.m. than all other tow companies working on the Island did at any time combined.

Residents say they often see PPI's white tow truck roaming through the apartment grounds during twilight, seeking cars to tow. However, it is unclear if any staff, security, or tenants sign off to authorize the tows, or if PPI is just roaming the lots at night.

The Alameda County District Attorney's Office is investigating PPI and its practices.

"The tow trucks should not be cruising," said Ethel Newlin, consumer complaint mediator with the San Francisco County District Attorney's office, speaking generally about towing from apartment complexes. She said tow truck companies need to have a signed tow request. "Whoever authorized the tow needs to be there to sign for it," Newlin said.

Towika Smith's car was towed multiple times from Summer House. She recalled leaving a friend's apartment at Summer House to find her car missing. "I thought it was strange that my vehicle was not there because I know that I put the parking pass that the tenant that I was visiting gave me on the rearview mirror of my vehicle to ensure that it would not be towed," Smith said.

She called PPI, who told her she'd need to pay $290 if she retrieved her car before 5 p.m. Smith arrived two hours before closing to pay the fine. A PPI cashier told her the car was towed because the parking permit in her car was "fake," Smith wrote in a complaint to the Better Business Bureau.

An employee then asked Smith for her keys to retrieve the pass. Smith declined. Soon after, the cashier told her the credit card transaction failed. Instead of trying her card again or asking for another form of payment, "PPI Towing refused to release my vehicle, because I refused to give him permission to search my vehicle," she stated in her complaint.

Smith expressed concern that PPI might have tried to remove the permit from her vehicle had she gave them the keys. The ordeal took six hours. Since Smith is self-employed, she said she lost money both from the additional storage fees and the lost revenue from her business. PPI has received over a dozen complaints with the Better Business Bureau, but has not responded to any of the 14 complaints over the past three years.

Summer House's parking permits have changed twice over the past two years. The new property management company, Pinnacle Living, issued new "PPI Enforced" parking permits last winter. Summer House provides one parking space per unit, and according to a Pinnacle property management representative, an additional "open parking" permit can be purchased by residents for $100 per month. According to lease agreements reviewed by the Express, tenants' vehicles can be towed for parking in other residents' assigned spaces or in disabled spaces without appropriate placards, as well as red zones or other non-designated parking spaces.

Summer House resident Darel Jenkins told the Express that he's considering moving because in one month alone, he paid as much in towing fees as his rent.

Jenkins is a merchant mariner and is often away for weeks at a time. Returning in May from weeks at sea, he discovered his car was not where he thought he'd parked. "I first thought that it was stolen, but then I thought that maybe I parked it in a loading zone and it was towed," Jenkins said. He went to the leasing office to ask about his car and discovered it had been towed. He paid $900 to the towing company to get his car back. At the time, Jenkins had a parking permit sticker issued by Summer House but was unaware that new parking permit placards had been issued. Staff didn't tell him about the new permits when he learned his car had been towed.

After another few weeks away, Jenkins returned home on June 27 to find his car was missing again. A security guard then told him that management had changed parking permits two months earlier and all tenants were emailed and had a notice posted on their door. Jenkins said he received neither. The towing fee was $195, but the storage fee totaled $1,260.

Altogether, Jenkins paid over $2,523 total for both tows. By comparison, monthly rents at the complex begin at $2,563. Jenkins emailed Summer House to request financial assistance with the towing fees. Zamora provided him with a printed "no tow" notice. Summer House eventually paid him $1,000 back, but he is not satisfied, he said. "I want 100 percent back!"

An examination of the vehicle release invoice obtained by the Express shows PPI charged Jenkins excessive rates. State law defines a towing or storage charges as "excessive" if the fees exceed the amount that would have been charged if the police requested the tow. The city of Alameda contracts with Ken Betts Towing Services. Betts charges a $150 tow fee, a $50 "gate fee" for after-hours releases, and $65 for storage fees for each 24-hour period and $10 per hour for each hour in excess of 24 hours. PPI charged Jenkins a $195 tow fee. For 13 days and three hours of storage, PPI charged him $1,260, or at least $90 per day. PPI also charged Jenkins a $97.50 gate fee.


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