Andre Foster knew he might be without his car for quite some time when he dropped it off with his mechanic. The repairs were unaffordable, and the part he needed was on backorder. But the shop said he could leave the car, a 2010 Ford Taurus at their lot on Livernois Avenue until the part arrived and while he saved up. 

But Foster has now gone eight months without his car because the mechanic closed up shop unannounced and dumped Foster’s car in a private parking lot where it was towed. 

“I was pissed,” said Foster, 30, who lives on the city’s east side. “I had no way to retrieve it. I was just stuck just paying a bill, which is not fair.”

At any given moment in Detroit, hundreds of cars are sitting in police and private impound lots, as balances climb in storage fees, slimming the possibility of the owner recovering their vehicle. And despite towing in Detroit carrying a history marred with corruption, little assistance is available for victims of predatory towing practices.  

The difficulty of navigating Detroit’s car-towing system — along with the price tag — is now putting Foster at risk of losing his car permanently. The car has been sitting on the private lot for more than 150 days, accumulating $5,125 in storage fees as of Wednesday. The Kelly Blue Book value of his car is less than $10,000. 

“The only car we have is my aunt’s car, and that’s a sketchy thing to drive,” he said. “I can’t get on the freeway with it because it needs some suspension work, and so we have to take the scenic route, which quadruples our time to get around, so it’s not helping at all. It sucks.”

Living in a city where residents’ livelihood is dependent on cars, Foster said being without his car has affected every aspect of his life and limited his employment prospects, significantly setting him back financially. 

“It’s definitely been rough,” he said. “Having my car would have made it a lot easier. I could have gone to a lot of different opportunities on the way.”

An exercise in frustration

There are three kinds of towing, police-authorized, consensual and non-consensual. The latter is what happened to Foster, who didn’t know a private property owner called a towing company to remove his vehicle.

His car was towed on March 7, but Foster said he didn’t receive a “notice of abandoned vehicle,” which is required to be sent through the mail within seven days of the tow, until the end of that month, when the balance on the car had already reached hundreds of dollars. 

A manager with the business where Foster’s car was left, an ophthalmology clinic on the city’s west side, could not provide specific details regarding the towing of Foster’s car but said the clinic had to establish a towing policy in early 2021 because abandoned cars were interfering with access to the building.

Finding out how to hold those responsible for Foster’s car being in the ophthalmology clinic’s lot and who can help him get the car back is an exercise in frustration. Even though Foster was not responsible for his car being towed, the only solution available to him is to have enough money to get it out of the impound lot — and he doesn’t have enough to do that.

The auto repair shop responsible for Foster’s saga, Tigers Complete Auto, is permanently closed. Incorporation documents filed with the state list Sukana Alhussain as the owner, with her husband Thaban Alhussain overseeing operations. But the couple is now divorced and Thaban Alhussain says he sold the business before Foster dropped his car off. He declined, however, to provide documentation of the sale or the name of the person to whom he sold the business to Outlier Media and the Free Press.

The towing bill could not have come at a worse time for Foster, he said, as he was between jobs at the time and didn’t have the cash on hand. 

The Detroit Police Department’s Tow Monitor Unit has also been unable to help. The unit has the ability to intervene on behalf of Detroiters to reduce or waive their fees for reasons including financial hardship, improper notification to the owner and wrongful impounding. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request sent in late June to DPD regarding the frequency of towing fee waivers and how much Detroiters have saved from these interventions had still not been responded to at the time of publication.    

“Sometimes DPD will call and say, ‘Hey, just waive the fees and send the bill to the city and give them the car back,’ I very rarely see that happen, once or twice a year,” said Barry Foster, president of the Detroit Towing Association, who is not related to Andre Foster. “When someone gets their vehicle impounded, they’re doing everything they can to get their vehicle back, whether they have to go borrow the money from someone, a relative or something.”

A dispatcher with the company that towed Foster’s car, Goch & Son’s, and now has the car said the only option for him is to pay the full amount, as they do not offer payment plans to keep the repossession process straightforward. The dispatcher, who declined to give her full name, said a manager was not available to speak on multiple occasions when the Free Press and Outlier called. Management also did not respond to an email request for comment.  

Turning to the courts to contest unreasonable towing fees is possible but difficult. Those struggling to get their cars back often don’t have the time, money or institutional knowledge to draft and file legal documents. Towing can compound ongoing difficulties for possible plaintiffs — like job insecurity, domestic abuse and homelessness — said Elliot Stephens, a staff attorney with Lakeshore Legal Aid. 

“Sometimes people don’t get them (cars) back,” Stephens said. “Obviously, transportation is critical for all kinds of reasons, most obvious being access to employment, but it’s also for people getting access to education.” 

It takes more than $100 in just filing fees and bond to file an abandoned vehicle case at the 36th District Court. That’s on top of all accrued towing and storage fees that are also required to be paid unless a receipt of payment to the lot can be provided.

“If they couldn’t afford to get it out in the first place to pay that to get the car back, how are they going to file the action in district court?” Stephens said. “It bars access for many people to the legal system. It kind of kicks people when they’re down.”

Foster said pursuing legal action would be worthwhile, but finding representation and the money will be time-consuming. 

“It’s caused an inconvenience, not just for me, but for the entire family,” he said. “I have no other means to get around.”

DPD was not able to clarify in what circumstances financial hardship waivers can be used or how residents can apply for waivers by the time of publication. 

For now, Andre Foster is saving up while trying to get a new long-haul trucking business off the ground. It’s too late for him to explore legal action, as petitions have to be filed within 20 days of the towing. He said this incident is just another reason he’s looking to move out of Detroit, he said he’s tired of being screwed over. 

“I don’t care what it costs,” he said, “I just want my car back.”

Miriam (she/her) is a strong believer that journalism should hold leaders accountable and serve as a platform for marginalized groups. She can often be found at The Congregation — usually with a hot mocha in hand and finding an outlet to charge her dying laptop.