a row of cars parked in one of the city of chicago's auto tow pounds an outdoor lot near a railway. a metra commuter train is in the background
A group of cars swept off the streets by the Department of Revenue sit at the city's Auto Pound on Sacramento. Credit: Josh Sonnenberg/Unsplash

It feels like something I don’t have much power to prevent. Like an occasional mosquito bite that you can’t control, it’s just in the air. Except that mosquito sucks $100 from you here and there.

Eric Hoskins

Eric Hoskins has never owned a car in Chicago. The slew of expenses car ownership incurs in the city—including hidden taxes and fines in the form of innumerable parking tickets, street cleaning fees, and more—are one of the reasons he never plans to.

Despite not owning his own car, Hoskins has still paid over $300 to the City of Chicago in ticket fees because of infractions he’s accrued while driving employers’ vehicles for past jobs with a COVID-19 testing site and a flower farm. But $300 is a low number compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ticket debt Chicago car owners are drowning in.

“I think it’s so dirty how poorly they inform us, you know? And how scarce the [street cleaning notices] are and how brief the window is for that poster to be up,” Hoskins said. Hoskins recalled a time a street cleaning notice was posted after his friend’s car was already parked on the street. The friend’s car was ticketed by the time they returned to use their car several days later. Hoskins continued, “They just never had a chance to see it, you know?” The city generally posts street cleaning signs two days in advance and keeps a schedule of planned street sweeping on its website, but an Illinois state appeals panel ruled in 2019 the City of Chicago has to provide 24 hours of warning time before it begins to write tickets for cars parked in the way of street sweepers.

When Hoskins received tickets in the past, he found himself shouting and cursing out loud while sitting in his temporary car. “It feels like something I don’t have much power to prevent. Like an occasional mosquito bite that you can’t control, it’s just in the air. Except that mosquito sucks $100 from you here and there.”

In “The Debt Spiral,” a 2018 report from Chicago’s Woodstock Institute (a nonprofit research and policy organization committed to advancing economic justice and racial equity within financial systems), researchers found the City of Chicago issued over 3.6 million vehicle-related tickets in 2017. This was more, per capita, than issued by New York City or Los Angeles in that year. The majority of tickets issued (54 percent) were for nonmoving violations, such as expired parking meters or missing city stickers. City tickets are so numerous they make up a significant portion of revenue; in 2016, tickets and fines brought in roughly $264 million (or 7 percent of the city’s operating budget).

On top of that, tickets are 40 percent more likely to be issued within ZIP codes where there are more low- and moderate-income residents—making ticketing more likely to happen to people who can’t afford to pay.

Residents deal with the burden of rising fines from the city but also parking tickets that are issued inaccurately. A 2022 report from the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) found between August 2012 and May 2018, more than one in eight parking tickets, or 13.2 percent, were issued in error. The city earned $27.5 million in revenue from those tickets, since only 7 percent of inaccurate tickets are contested. UIC researchers found that nine of the ten Chicago community areas with the lowest appeal rates have a majority of Latinx residents.

According to UIC, every day in Chicago at least one person goes into financial bankruptcy because of a ticket issued in error. And the city has a reputation for inconsistent enforcement of tickets, depending on the neighborhood you live in.

City drivers received over 1 million tickets in the first half of 2022, up 150,000 from the year prior. Despite then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s March 2021 decision to lower the threshold for speeding tickets in the name of public safety, road collision fatalities have actually increased, alongside revenue collected by the city.

So what happens if you can’t afford to get your car out? The city keeps your car, sells it, and doesn’t even apply any of the sale proceeds to your ticket debt; they just keep everything . . .

Jacie Zolna

Jacie Zolna is an attorney with Myron M. Cherry and Associates, a law firm that has won several successful lawsuits against the City of Chicago on behalf of ticketed drivers. Zolna says his firm continuously gets calls from people distraught about their own outstanding ticket debt.

“It’s overwhelming, really, the number of people who call in despair [about] the situation that they’re in, in terms of owing the city all this money,” Zolna said.

A recent case Cherry and Associates is engaged in involves the city illegally overcharging residents in ticket fees. Zolna explains under the municipal vehicle code, there’s a decades-old law that allows the city to send its parking and city sticker ticket hearings to the city Department of Administrative Hearings (DAH) instead of traffic court. The DAH is not a real court with real judges—there, city employees adjudicate the cases. To send tickets there, the city has to adhere to a set of rules.

One of those rules sets a $250 cap for any single ticket and related fees that’s judged by DAH employees. But since the city has slowly increased ticket prices over the past decade, common fines have been raised to the point where they’ve exceeded the $250 limit.

This is most common with city sticker violations. Anyone who receives a $200 fine for not having an up-to-date sticker and a $200 late penalty could be part of the recent Cherry and Associates suit, because the $400 combined fee is in violation of the law. Late penalties could hit, for example, when a curious parking attendant sees a driver’s out-of-date city sticker, which is visible on the windshield, and then tickets it. In 2019, city officials shared around 500,000 city motorists owe a combined $500 million in unpaid city sticker fines.

Zolna said there’s over a million violations that have been issued in violation of the $400 cap.

Luckily, the legal pressure from this specific suit already encouraged the city to reinstitute the $250 cap after a November 2022 City Council meeting. Anyone impacted before this cap was reassessed, though, will be sent notices in the mail in the coming months giving them information about how to become part of the class action.

Cherry and Associates is also currently in litigation against the city for similar infractions of the standing law. The firm nicknamed a recent closed case the “Red Light Suit.” The firm set the wheels in motion for the Red Light Suit in 2015 because it observed the city had not followed due process by failing to provide a 14-day grace period before issuing a determination of liability to vehicle owners in violation of red light codes. The practice accelerated the city’s ability to issue, enforce, and collect fines illegally, and it was  ultimately forced to pay out $125 million in the class-action settlement for affected drivers.

Another recent suit managed by the firm involves the city’s tow practices for unpaid ticket debt after booting. Presently, if you don’t pay your tickets in time—even if it’s likely you just can’t afford to do so—the city can boot your car. If you don’t pay the fees within 24 hours of being booted, the city tows your car. And after being towed, the only way to get your car back immediately is to pay off your debt on the spot, meaning those residents no longer qualify for a city payment plan.

“So what happens if you can’t afford to get your car out? The city keeps your car, sells it, and doesn’t even apply any of the sale proceeds to your ticket debt; they just keep everything,” Zolna said. “Now, someone else in this situation loses their car, and they still owe the city ticket debt. We’re challenging that practice, as well.”

Zolna says there’s a lot of talk from the city about fixing these problems, but in his experience, the only thing that makes the city change is a lawsuit.

And I remember being so infuriated. This is so fucked up.


S.S. and her family grew up in Chicago. She and her family are all undocumented longtime city residents, so she asked to remain anonymous in this interview for safety reasons. S.S. is a person considered protected under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a federal program that safeguards those who were brought to the U.S. as children with their migrant families by allowing them to have temporary and renewable work visas.

S.S. told the Reader for people with either DACA or any sort of extralegal immigration status, you have to be extra careful with parking violations. She’s always under high duress when family members get parking tickets or have any sort of interaction with police.

“When you’re filing [with the] Department of Homeland Security, you have to [tell them] that you got a parking ticket or a red light ticket; you have to bring all of that into it,” S.S. said.

Clear Path Relief Program
Contact your alderperson’s office or go to chicago.gov for more information

For that reason, she’s always been an extremely careful person when it comes to parking violations and feels the pressure to pay them off as soon as possible. “But, you know, the older you get, the more responsibilities you have. It becomes hard to keep track of these things. And to be like, is this street cleaning?”

The peak of S.S.’s stressful experiences relating to parking tickets happened in summer 2020, during the Black Lives Matter uprisings. S.S. was then active in neighborhood organizing. She was working a part-time job because that was the only work she could find. One day, she returned to her car to find three different parking tickets attached to it, totaling $150 in fines.

She remembers paying off those violations depleted her money that month for groceries, so she hustled to find emergency relief from mutual aid networks.

“I broke down and cried in my car because there were so many. I didn’t have the money to pay it, and we were protesting so much in the streets,” S.S. said. “This thing is meant to hold back your transportation, hold you back as a person, and hold you back as a community. And I remember being so infuriated. This is so fucked up.” S.S. thinks the city is funding itself through tickets levied to poor, BIPOC, and marginalized folks—and dumping the ticket money into things like the “massive CPD budget that keeps getting bigger.”

One city practice that stands out to S.S., though, is the discrepancy between ticketing practices in her home neighborhood, Little Village, and Wicker Park, the affluent neighborhood where she works.

She said she and her coworkers constantly park on a permit parking street they realized is rarely enforced by city authorities.

Kaitlyn Poindexter, another car owner, noticed the same discrepancy in her Logan Park neighborhood. She said she never moves her car on days where street cleaning happens, and she’s never gotten a ticket for it. And she notices the same pattern for her neighbors in a four-block radius who feel comfortable leaving their vehicles out those days. In fact, the city usually just cleans around the cars left on the street.

Can I pay a ticket, or I can pay my rent?

Izzi Vasquez

Izzi Vasquez has been booted three times since moving to Chicago from Seattle in 2019. As a new resident who struggled to navigate the city’s byzantine processes for car owners, her introduction to Chicago towing practices was egregious. Between getting her car registered in the right state and learning about the city sticker mandate as she retrieved her car from the pound after two days, Vasquez ended up forking out $900 for her first tow.

“It was all my money, every cent of my money. That was the beginning of all the tickets,” Vasquez said. 

Vasquez moved to Avondale in 2022 and was immediately confronted with parking challenges. There’s no permit parking on her street block because it’s close to local businesses, although there’s permit parking on every other residential street surrounding her.

“I can only park on my block,” Vasquez said. “Which means I have to compete with everyone else on the block, plus [business patrons] parking for free.”

If she doesn’t come out victorious with securing a spot on her street, she has to park six blocks away instead. She cleans houses for a living, so that means carrying her vacuum for a ten-minute walk down the street.

She’s due for a new city sticker and needs to make a deposit toward her ticket payment plan, but she won’t be able to afford either for a few weeks. Her original tickets came from violating permit parking and not moving her car for street cleaning. Although Vasquez usually observes the law, street cleaning notice sign placement and timing is inconsistent and can be confusing. She also erroneously received a ticket for not having an up-to-date parking sticker late last year, when she actually did have a current sticker. But since she didn’t contest the ticket in time, it doubled, and added to the list of fees that got her booted in December 2022.

“All this shit only affects lower-income people,” Vasquez said. “If you can pay off a ticket right away, or if you have a driveway or if you can afford parking, you’re not being fucking fined all the fucking time. You might get tickets, but it’s not gonna [make you think], ‘Can I pay a ticket, or I can pay my rent?’”

Vasquez said the looming spectre of a potential ticket affects her every day. She has wondered to herself, “Is today the day Chicago will fuck me?”

“But I also feel like half of Chicago is probably walking around [thinking] that. There’s nowhere to hide. There’s nowhere to hide!”

an orange street cleaning sign posted on a leaning tree. one car sits at the end of the otherwise empty block in Bridgeport, Chicago
“I think it’s so dirty how poorly they inform us, you know? And how scarce the [street cleaning notices] are and how brief the window is for that poster to be up,” Hoskins said. Credit: Artistmac/Flickr via CC BY-SA 2.0

The Clear Path Relief Program (CPRP) is a pilot program that rolled out after the city eased COVID-19 restrictions in 2021. It waives outstanding late penalties that came with your original tickets, if you qualify. Those enrolled also will have a 50 percent reduction in any new tickets issued in one calendar year after making a down payment from a debt relief payment plan.

Anyone who makes a household income of less than 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines qualify. For example, a household size of one has to make less than $3,645 per month to be eligible. A household of two has to make less than $4,930 per month.

Sandra Puebla is the neighborhood services director for the 35th Ward, handling all city services for the area. Puebla deals with situations that impact residents on an everyday basis, like needing a new garbage cart or signing up residents for the ticket relief program.

Puebla said the good thing is the program is income-based. So it doesn’t matter whether you had a high-paying job and were laid off. If your income has changed in the past 30 days, you’re eligible.

Unfortunately, the wait time to be approved for CPRP after submitting an application is four to six weeks. 

“At the end of the day, it’s still a Band-Aid,” Puebla said. “People are still going to be stressed and overwhelmed by parking tickets. And they’re still going to have to make sacrifices to get these payments done. So although we have something like [CPRP] that has been really helpful for residents, we need to be thinking a little bit bigger.”

More by Debbie-Marie Brown