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The Relationship Between Parking and Housing Costs, Explained

Oakland
Telegraph Avenue heading into downtown Oakland, California. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog
Instead of measuring delay to cars, under new CEQA rules infill projects will estimate the number of vehicle miles traveled they produce. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

The complex relationships between parking requirements, cities, and the cost of housing got a thorough analysis in a long article about Oakland, California, in this week's East Bay Express.

Sam Levin describes the changing conversation in Oakland—and, by extension, throughout California—as cities and developers finally begin to ask how much money, time, and effort should be spent on building storage for cars, instead of just accepting long-outdated, suburban-style requirements that encourage driving.

Oakland is particularly ripe for change. Originally connected by a robust streetcar system, the city saw car use skyrocket in the fifties and sixties, and responded by widening roads, building freeways, and destroying neighborhoods. The city's “suburban-style planning policies,” says Levin, don't fit with the Oakland of today, which is experiencing an influx of residents who aren't interested in driving to get everywhere. Those outdated policies

incorrectly assume that all residents drive and want parking included in their rents. In truth, the much higher costs associated with mandated parking make housing less affordable for middle- and low-income people. Indeed, outmoded parking policies can help accelerate gentrification by forcing the construction of apartment buildings that attract wealthier people who own multiple cars and can afford to pay the higher rents that come with excess parking, thereby squeezing out lower-income tenants who want to live greener lifestyles.

Levin describes the efforts of one developer to obtain permission from the city to build less than one parking space per unit in a particularly transit-rich area.

With the financial savings from this reduced parking plan, Nautilus will be able to provide all residents with discounted public transit passes, free car-share memberships, secured bike parking, and other amenities. The company, however, had to go through an extensive process to convince city officials to let its project bypass municipal parking rules — the kind of effort that developers in Oakland have rarely completed on this scale. Instead, most developers continue to follow the city's planning guidelines and rules — and build large parking garages in areas where they aren't needed.

But anyone wanting to build housing without overspending on parking has to educate existing residents and businesses, who cannot understand how people can live without cars and fear that “their” street parking will be overwhelmed if new developments don't include more than enough parking spaces. Groups like TransForm are doing just that, tracking parking usage in housing developments and making the information readily available to the public.

Resistance and outdated policies mean that most current development in Oakland still includes too much parking.

And the need for change, advocates say, is urgent as rents skyrocket at alarming rates in Oakland and as real estate investors continue to propose and break ground on new projects. If Oakland doesn't get it right soon, it could mean an influx of new development that lacks forward-thinking designs — and instead continues the promotion of 20th century car culture, harmful emissions, and unaffordable rents for years to come.

But there may be hope, at least in Oakland. Mayor Libby Schaaf and Transportation Policy Director Matt Nichols support AB 744, state legislation that would allow affordable housing developers to request exemptions to local parking requirements. And Levin quotes Rachel Flynn, Oakland's Director of City Planning, saying that

... she recognizes that making it easier for people to park is not the key to building a better Oakland. "Nobody goes to Paris because it has a lot of parking," she said, adding, "When you provide a lot of [parking] and it's cheap, you induce more driving. If we're trying to change lifestyles in terms of transportation choices, we have to decide what's more important to us. Is it just to make sure cars have easy access to parking?

Levin's article, very long in keeping with East Bay Express tradition, can be read here.

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