Metropolis

For Once, California Might Choose More Housing Over More Parking

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 12: California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a visit to Chabot Space & Science Center with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on August 12, 2022 in Oakland, California. Kamala Harris wrapped up a two day trip to Northern California with a tour of the Chabot Space & Science Center.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Sign it, governor. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has on his desk a long-awaited reform bill that will make housing cheaper and more abundant, help mom ’n’ pop restaurants get started, let architects reuse historic buildings, and make the state’s neighborhoods more walkable.

What issue connects those disparate topics? Onerous local laws that require every gym and office, every sneaker store and Korean barbecue and donut shop, and most importantly, every home, to come with a certain number of parking spots. If California Assemblywoman Laura Friedman’s A.B. 2097 avoids the governor’s veto, those requirements will disappear within a half-mile of regular transit service, effectively ending parking minimums in large swaths of the state’s cities and suburbs.

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For day-to-day life in California, these parking rules are as powerful as they are invisible. They ensure ample parking at every new office, shop, or house. But they also make it complicated and expensive to build new housing, especially affordable units, family-size apartments, senior housing, adaptive reuse buildings, infill projects, “missing middle” housing, and mixed-use developments—basically, the diverse housing types sorely needed in a state with an acute affordability crisis. Letting builders pick their own parking arrangements will leave more money, and more room, to house Californians. The required parking garage has added $36,000, on average, to the cost of every unit in the state built with the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

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Friedman, who represents Glendale, a city near Los Angeles, was inspired to write the legislation by a visit to a local affordable housing complex whose cavernous garage, though mandatory, sat empty. “The bottom line is: We need to prioritize people over cars,” she told me last year.

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California has taken significant steps in that direction since a version of this policy was first proposed more than a decade ago. San Francisco stopped requiring parking in 2018; San Diego stopped requiring parking near transit in 2019. California has also exempted accessory dwelling units—the smaller homes many Californians now build in their backyards in order to rent out—from parking rules, and in 2021, the state allowed affordable housing near transit to go ahead without any parking at all.

But A.B. 2097 is by far the most comprehensive state preemption of local parking rules, and would clear away a limit on housing construction from cities that require as many as four parking spaces per home. “The way you really get affordable housing is to get rid of parking requirements,” says Donald Shoup, the dean of parking studies and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking. “That reduces the price of housing for everybody, not just low-income residents.”

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That’s a response to the main opposition to the bill, which comes, ironically, from some low-income housing advocates who say it will eliminate one of the incentives—freedom from required parking—that cities dangle to induce affordable housing development. In Los Angeles, for example, one city official told me the bill would steer developers away from affordable housing programs. In other words, parking ought to be required precisely because it’s so burdensome to provide.

Evidence from San Diego, however, where some parking requirements have been eliminated, suggests affordable housing will get built regardless. “Parking reform did not get in the way of that,” says Colin Parent, the executive director of Circulate San Diego, which has tracked the city’s affordability stats. “Did parking reform juice production? I’m not sure we can make that claim, but it didn’t get in the way.”

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How does Shoup feel as he watches a reform that he has advocated for decades reach the governor’s desk? Why, excited about the potential for new studies, of course: “It’ll provide a lot of opportunities for research, because there will be borderlines. There will be one side of the street that has parking requirements, and one side that doesn’t.”

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Virtually everyone I spoke to cautioned against expecting overnight Manhattanization in either its good form (more homes) or its bad (fewer street parking spaces).

“There’s very particular circumstances in California that allow you to pull the trigger on a building with no parking, and some of those places are already free from parking rules, like San Francisco, for example,” observes Michael Manville, who studies the issue at UCLA.

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“Market-rate developers building market-rate housing will always include some parking,” says Meea Kang, senior vice president at Related California, a developer that builds both market-rate and subsidized housing. Evidence from a special program in Los Angeles that allows some developers to trade parking for affordable units suggests that they would build fewer spots than the old laws required but still provide plenty of space to park. (Specifically, Manville notes that including affordable units raises the cost of market-rate units, which must come with ample parking to justify their luxury price tag.)

“The immediate change will be for people who own empty, existing buildings right now,” Kang argues. Often, older buildings are frozen out of renovation and adaptive reuse—turning an old store into a restaurant, or an old office into apartments—by the challenge of bringing parking up to code in and around an existing structure. For buildings near transit, that wouldn’t be the case anymore.

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Restaurants would be another big winner from parking reform, says Eddie Navarrette, whose company, FE Design & Consulting, helps restaurateurs get up and running. Los Angeles’ temporary suspension of parking mandates during the pandemic has been a “major breakthrough,” but the state law would be a game-changer for mom ’n’ pops. Many food-service spaces are simply impossible to plan parking at by Los Angeles standards, he says, which require one space for every 100 square feet of restaurant—more parking space than restaurant space. That forces would-be cooks to go through a long and expensive petition process with the city, which in turn stops restaurateurs without serious financial backing from opening at all. Among other benefits, says Navarrette, parking reform would level the playing field.

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The bill would also save the city government time, Navarrette suggests, since they can stop supervising the byzantine procedures attached to parking variance applications.

Something similar will happen in residential development, argues Mott Smith, chairman of the Council of Infill Builders. “We’ll see a whole blossoming of younger, smaller, community-based developers.” The expense and complication of meeting Los Angeles’ parking requirements, he says, has helped shift residential construction toward larger projects from larger companies. Expect to see changes at the margin, he suggests, where most developers embrace their new flexibility, still providing parking but stopping short of the space that triggers a whole new floor of garage. “Tens of thousands of properties are sitting basically fallow, and lots of people with a little family money and a lot of ambition are trying to make creative deals happen.”

The best news is for Californians who don’t drive. The state might finally make it legal—in some places—for developers to build apartments without parking. That seems like a pretty basic idea, but homes without parking have been illegal in most California cities for more than 50 years.

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