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.