Affordable housing is a big issue for many cities, especially top-tier urban areas like New York and Los Angeles, to name a few. And it's only grown worse in recent years as the gap between what people can afford and what they earn has increased.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition says the average renter earns $14.38 an hour, but needs to earn $18.79 an hour to afford a decent apartment, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's fair market rent estimate. The coalition figures that another 4.5 million rental units are needed to satisfy the demand for affordable living. But getting even a fraction of that number of apartments built won't be easy.
The problem can be tied to a number of factors, including restrictive land-use regulations that can drive up land and construction costs. One often overlooked regulation is the parking mandate. Most cities require developers to set aside a parking space for every unit they build in an apartment building; in some cities, requirements call for a parking slot for every bedroom. Cities impose parking mandates to keep street parking to a minimum, essentially in order to leave spaces open for temporary parking. But setting aside the land for all that parking, or adding a garage beneath the building, can jack up the overall price of an apartment.
These mandates, or parking minimums, have been dubbed a driving subsidy by some critics, who charge that they distort transportation choices in favor of automobiles and increase traffic congestion, air pollution and energy consumption. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser points out that cities have "kept street parking artificially cheap and then mandated more off-street spots, wasting scarce common space, encouraging automobile congestion and raising the cost of construction" for housing.
Research by UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies found that "when parking requirements are removed, developers provide more housing and less parking, and also that developers provide different types of housing: housing in older buildings, in previously disinvested areas, and housing marketed toward non-drivers. This latter category of housing tends to sell for less than housing with parking spaces."
The findings are getting noticed as urban populations rebound in some areas with new residents who don't want or need cars, relying instead on transit, bikes, car rentals and, of course, walking to get around. A small but growing number of cities are beginning to loosen parking regulations in hopes that developers can reduce the price of their rental units. Cambridge, Mass., has cut back on parking requirements and now its neighbor, Boston, is doing the same. Portland, Ore., was one of the first cities in the country to remove parking requirements, which has led to a spate of new development along transit lines.
One of about 30 parking-free apartment buildings in Portland, Ore., that have been recently completed or are in some stage of development. (Photo: AP/Don Ryan)
But just as more city bike lanes means fewer parking spaces and more unhappy drivers, doing away with apartment parking requirements can lead to some nasty squabbles in some jurisdictions. Residents of Boston neighborhoods are angry about the changes the city government has made regarding parking mandates, fearing a flood of cars on their side streets. Washington, D.C.'s planning director has reassured its neighborhood residents that minimum parking requirements will remain in effect in its transit-oriented neighborhoods (although the city still plans to remove the mandate for its downtown area).
And even in Portland -- perhaps the nation's most progressive urban city -- has had to pull back on its grand plans to eliminate parking requirements. In April, the city council okayed minimum parking requirements for large apartment buildings. Neighborhood residents are relieved. Urbanists are aghast. For now, Portland's working class will have to wait a while longer before developers can build affordable rental apartments that don't subsidize parking.