Justin Zimmerman and Hannah Kliokis outside the PPA impound lot in South Philadelphia

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Justin Zimmerman and Hannah Kliokis arrived at the Philadelphia Parking Authority impound lot on Tuesday, Aug. 11, thinking their luck had finally changed.

That very morning, they’d paid nearly $1,700 to retrieve their 2008 Jeep Compass. The vehicle had sat in the authority’s South Philly lockup for nearly five months. It was an unexpected grace during an otherwise brutal pandemic, since PPA usually begins auctioning vehicles after just three weeks.

Zimmerman sat in his wheelchair, waiting for his partner Kliokis to emerge with their car. The 30-year-old lives with paralysis from an auto crash he suffered as a teenager. Getting their Jeep back would mean a returned freedom to navigate the world.

But Kliokis, 24, came out from the impound line looking stunned with defeat.

“They sold it,” Kliokis said. “Five days ago.”

Zimmerman looked at the PPA paperwork they paid to get that morning, supposedly authorizing them to retrieve the car.

“They told us it was still here,” he said in protest. “We paid so much money!”

It was true, though.

The parking authority is now sitting on a backlog of vehicles to sell after months of postponed auctions. The couple’s car was one of more than 1,000 vehicles PPA sold off in the last three weeks  — higher than the 855 vehicles per month auctioned on average last year.

PPA spokesperson Marty O’Rourke said a “glitch” caused the authority to mislead Zimmerman and Kliokis on the morning they handed over their money. The agency will issue a refund for most of it.

O’Rourke said he didn’t know of any other people contesting the PPA over the sale of their vehicle since auctions resumed on July 22.

Zimmerman and Kliokis said blame should be shared between themselves and the notoriously merciless parking authority. Despite their own mistakes, they insist agency clerks misled them on the phone for weeks on end, costing them more time and money.

COVID-19 meets the PPA horror story

The Jeep had been towed for blocking a crosswalk over the weekend of March 14, PPA confirmed. Zimmerman and Kliokis acknowledged they were clearly in the wrong there.

That turned out to be the same week the coronavirus crashed into the city, and PPA suspended most operations.

Broke at the time, Kliokis and Zimmerman inquired about retrieving the car on a payment plan, but the city’s Bureau of Administration Adjudication, which handles those arrangements, was closed because of the pandemic. During the shutdown, the PPA was only accepting full payment to return vehicles.

For the couple, it wasn’t just the $175 towing fee and what was then a few days of $30-a-day storage fees.

Zimmerman and Kliokis were told to pay $1,120 in outstanding parking tickets the car had accrued on separate occasions — an impossible sum for them at the time. However, they said, PPA told them (correctly) that auctions and storage fees were on hold indefinitely, and their car would not be auctioned, for now.

Fearful of the virus due to an immunodeficiency, Zimmerman spent most of the last several months in self-quarantine, he said. At one point, his wheelchair got stolen. Living off of Zimmerman’s disability checks, the couple was also forced to find new housing.

By July, though, things had begun to look up. “We were trying to get our lives back together, and to do that we needed the car,” Zimmerman said.

To their relief, the PPA informed them the car was still in lockup — available to be redeemed.

Auction notices sent via mail, but omitted on phone

If Zimmerman and Kliokis agreed to pay the fees — and adopt a payment plan for the old tickets — the agency would release the vehicle to them, they were told in July. In addition to the cash, they’d need documents that proved ownership and insurance. They had neither.

So on Aug. 6, they spent hundreds of dollars to get a new registration card, a new copy of a title, and two months of auto insurance.

Little did they know, the PPA held an online auction that same day and sold their Jeep, for a cool $2,479. That represented about $780 more than the couple owed the agency in towing and impound fees.

Why did the parking authority continue to tell the couple they could retrieve the vehicle, even five days after the sale — and then accept their money?

O’Rourke blamed a computer glitch in the system that should have alerted PPA clerks a car had been sold.

“The owner of this vehicle was incorrectly told on Aug. 11, 2020, that their vehicle was still in impound when it had been sold at auction on Aug. 6, 2020,” O’Rourke wrote in an email. “This was a mistake resulting from new COVID-19 related auctioning procedures put in place to accommodate necessary online auction bidding and payment processing.”

O’Rourke did not say why PPA clerks failed to alert the couple about the auction during at least four phone calls over the previous few weeks, nor whether those clerks are obligated to tell vehicle owners such things by phone.

All sales are final

O’Rourke said the agency sent out four notices about the auction notices via U.S. mail. “The owner had some 5 months to retrieve his/her vehicle,” he emphasized. Zimmerman and Kliokis said they didn’t receive the mail due to changing residences.

Despite Kliokis and Zimmerman having their updated title on the same day as their vehicle was sold, all court-ordered auctions are final, O’Rourke said.

He promised the authority would return $1359 to the couple — keeping a few hundred dollars of what the two former car owners paid out last week.

That’s the difference between the sale price of the Jeep Compass and what the couple owed the PPA in towing, impound fees and parking tickets. O’Rourke said it’s standard practice for the agency to apply excess money from sales of impounded vehicles to any outstanding tickets on their license plates.

In this case, he said, the couple no longer had the option for a payment plan on the tickets, since they already handed over the cash.

“We were working so hard to get this car back and I just feel completely defeated,” Zimmerman said. “Someone should have been aware that our car was about to be sold. That’s gross incompetence.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...