States must deal with parking warrants
It’s not every day that elected officials ask for less authority. But at a California Assembly committee hearing in April, of them out of all three representatives for local governments testified in favor of a new bill that would limit their zoning authority.
BA 2097introduced by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, would prohibit cities from mandating off-street parking near high-quality public transit, in an effort to increase housing production across the state.
For decades, nearly every city in North America has required new buildings to have a specific number of parking spaces, whether they’re downtown or surrounded by empty parking lots. These regulations have succeeded in building many parking spaces, even as housing for Californians has become harder to find. In the highly sought-after Bay Area, there are twice as many parking spaces as inhabitants.
Some of the cities represented, such as San Diego and Emeryville, have already removed local rules requiring off-street parking. But Gilroy’s elected officials in Culver City had not, and they hoped the state would intervene in what is often a contentious land use struggle.
The feeling isn’t just Californian. Across the border in Oregon, Talent City Council President Eleanor Ponomareff told a state land use board the same thing earlier this year, regarding a policy change that would significantly reduce parking needs in Oregon metropolitan areas. “Implementation at the state level means fewer battles that we at the local level have to fight,” she said. Talent officials already have their hands full as they recover from a 2020 wildfire that destroyed a third of local homes, worsening a pre-existing shortage of affordable housing. As Cascadia governments attempt to fix decades of housing underconstruction, it is critical to recognize the limits of what local governments can achieve on their own.
Back in Sacramento, one of the local officials at the April hearing was Colin Parent, who serves on the city council of La Mesa, a small suburban community ten miles east of San Diego. Every home in La Mesa must have two off-street parking spaces, whether residents need it or not. Although Parent is in favor of eliminating parking requirements, his fellow councilors have little appetite for politically difficult reform. “It’s not an issue on the table,” Parent said. “I think it’s similar to most cities in California.”
Assemblyman Friedman knows this only too well. She recalled a case from her time on Glendale City Council when a family wanted to add a bathroom to their home, but to do so they would have had to build a three-car garage to bring the house up to current codes. The family never ended up building their bathroom, and Friedman failed to build more flexibility into the zoning code. She lost by one vote.
Local parking requirements add to a statewide housing shortage
There is reason to believe that most voters favor housing over parking. But most voters don’t show up for zoning hearings. Instead, local zoning meetings often go like this: the more localized a land use change is, the more the balance tilts towards the status quo. Current residents can easily visualize the downsides of a new development, such as more traffic or a blocked view. But future residents who will benefit from these new homes are not there to defend themselves in the same way.
This imbalance of political power makes zoning changes difficult, even in the most progressive cities. As a result, local leaders may be reluctant to expose themselves and instead choose to focus on other issues. UCLA urban planning professor Michael Manville thinks the state action is appropriate. “Even though things are going in the right direction, the fact is that the vast majority of local governments don’t show much interest in getting rid of their parking requirements,” he told me.
But not assuming it, La Mesa’s requirement of two parking spaces per home affects more than just La Mesa. Parking can cost between $30,000 and $75,000 per space to build, adding to the price of each unit and reducing the number of new homes that can fit within the permitted building envelope, or worse, preventing construction new homes. So when people who want to live in La Mesa can’t find a home within their budget, they look elsewhere, increasing the competition for homes in slightly more affordable towns nearby. While most cities require parking for new housing, these regulations distort entire housing markets.
The strict parking requirements are a “classic case of a collective action problem,” Manville explained. “What looks good for each city comes down to an outcome that’s not optimal for the state.” From 1980 to 2010, California ran out of 70,000 to 100,000 homes each year to keep pace with population growth, according to a Public Policy Institute of California report. Over the past decade, for every new home built, there are three new Californians.
“California’s housing crisis is a statewide problem,” Friedman explained. “That’s why policies that prevent barriers to housing rise to the level of statewide action.”
Abundant housing solutions require widespread parking reform
The bill would not prevent the construction of new parking spaces. Rather, it gives each project the flexibility to have the amount of parking it needs, as long as it is within half a mile of a train station or frequent transit line. . It would make life easier for affordable housing developer Meea Kang. “Every time I submit a plan to qualify, I have to apply for a parking discount,” she said.
The assumption that every household owns at least two cars does not reflect today’s society, Kang said. According to the last US census, 52% of California renter households have one or zero cars. At the lowest income levels, people are the least likely to own a car and would benefit the most from more housing options and the cheapest rent possible without the cost of parking.
Last year’s version of Friedman’s bill, AB 1401raised fears that if cities were no longer able to trade lower parking requirements like a carrot for affordable housing with deed restrictions under the state’s density bonus law, construction of those homes would decline. But new data out of town San Diego showed otherwise. After eliminating parking requirements near public transit in 2019, the city has seen an affordable housing boom instead of a bust. 2020 set a new record for the number of affordable housing units benefiting from the Density Bonus program, including an increase in the number of buildings consisting solely of affordable units.
Hopeful reformers described the state house as a better political stage for land use reforms. As the geographic reach expands, the negative impacts of change become more diffuse and lose potency, while the benefits become large enough to unite political allies. Like Jerusalem Demas stated unequivocally in The Atlantic last month, “In the United States, moving decision-making from the hyperlocal to the state level is the first step to fixing the broken development process.”
Although parking requirements are found in nearly all local zoning codes, statewide regulations are relatively new. Oregon became the first modern state to reduce large-scale parking requirements in 2020 after the Oregon State Land Use Agency determined that requiring excessive parking for duplexes, newly legalized triplexes and quadruplexes constituted an “unreasonable cost”. Other states, including Washington, have incorporated reduced parking requirements into average housing bills or attempted to ban them alongside others. exclusionary zoning practicesas New York tries.
California has tried to restrict parking requirements several times before. In 2011, AB 710which would have capped parking requirements near public transit at one parking space per unit, was narrowly defeated in the Senate, losing by a single vote at the end of the session. Last year, AB 1401 passed with bipartisan support in the state Assembly, but was denied a vote in the Senate.
Cities won’t act until states do
Even though the housing crisis has worsened in California, not everyone agrees that parking requirements are an issue that needs to be addressed. The California League of Cities opposed the measure on the grounds that local parking requirements should be left to individual cities, much like their counterpart organizations in Oregon and Washington. Santa Clarita defended city-mandated parking requirements, saying they “ensure residents and visitors have adequate and reasonable access to homes and businesses”. Beyond the simple need for parking spaces, Santa Clarita requires these spaces be closed, that is to say garages. (And many of those garages will eventually become catch-all drawers instead.)
Friedman didn’t mince words for cities that want to retain local control. “I would tell them that they have failed to provide housing for our residents,” she said.
Local leaders like Parent welcome state intervention. After California asked cities to legalize ADUs and offer density bonuses for affordable housing, its city of La Mesa ended up going beyond what the state required. The same thing happened in Portland and other cities in Oregon.
“There’s no way we could have made any of these orders locally if the state hadn’t acted first. Politics isn’t there for that,” Parent testified before state lawmakers in Sacramento. “I’m confident you’re going to see good faith implementation from local governments, as long as the legislature acts.”