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Editorial: Eliminate parking requirements: Housing people is more important than housing cars

A building under construction
An apartment building under construction in the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

With California deep in a housing crisis that is degrading the state’s quality of life, it’s time to prioritize housing people over housing cars.

The vast majority of California cities require new residential and commercial developments to be built with ample on-site parking — no matter whether the parking spaces are needed or desired, or whether the projects are next to light-rail stations or half-empty parking garages. The state’s obsession with providing abundant parking means the cost of new construction, particularly for housing, is unnecessarily inflated.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

A bill by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) would prohibit cities from requiring parking in developments within a half mile of a major transit stop or transit corridor. Note, this is not the end of “free parking.” Builders could still choose to provide parking — and many probably would — but the number of parking spaces would be determined by market demand, not by a blanket requirement.

If approved by the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friedman’s proposal (Assembly Bill 1401) could help with two essential and sometimes overlapping goals: easing the housing crisis and reducing climate-warming emissions from vehicles.

By eliminating parking mandates, California would be making it easier and cheaper to build more homes near transit. That kind of construction is essential if we’re going to alleviate the crippling shortage of housing, and it would be a big help for smaller, less expensive projects sited on pockets of undeveloped or underdeveloped urban land.

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Adding a parking garage significantly boosts the cost of construction. One analysis of affordable housing projects in California found that building a parking structure added nearly $36,000 per unit.

In some cities that are resistant to new development, stringent parking requirements are a de facto way of blocking higher-density multifamily housing and lower-income housing. Parking pushes the cost of construction so high that many projects simply won’t pencil out. Or, to make the projects financially viable, the developers have to design and rent them as high-end units.

We know that reducing parking requirements can increase housing production and reduce housing prices. After the state relaxed parking minimums for accessory dwelling units on single-family lots near transit, construction of those living spaces increased dramatically. Two decades ago, Los Angeles eased parking requirements to make it easier to convert old commercial buildings into apartments and condos. This adaptive reuse ordinance helped create nearly 7,000 units downtown by 2008.

Many developers still provided parking. They just did so in more creative ways or in lesser quantity, perhaps leasing space in nearby garages or providing one parking spot per unit. That flexibility allowed prices to come down, too; tenants whose unit did not come with parking paid about $200 a month less.

Some housing advocates worry that removing parking minimums could undermine the state’s density bonus law, which allows developers to build fewer parking spaces if they include affordable units in their buildings. The state could end up forfeiting a small number of affordable apartments in exchange for making it easier to build a lot more apartments overall. (This might be less of a concern in cities like Los Angeles that require developers to provide affordable units or pay an affordable housing fee.)

Minimum parking standards also conflict with the state’s climate goals. The requirement to provide oodles of parking spaces is based on the idea that everyone will drive everywhere all the time. But California is trying to break that mindset, investing in public transit and walkable and bikeable communities to get people out of their cars and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. There’s simply no way California can meet its climate goals without slashing emissions from transportation.

Yes, most Californians still have cars. But there are a significant number of people who live car-free or car-lite, meaning they share a car or do minimal driving. And as the state spends more on quality public transit, bike routes and safe streets, it will become easier to get around without a car.

California can’t stay mired in the old ways of building, not if the state is going to solve its housing crisis or fight climate change. It’s time to flip on its head the “car is king” thinking that has shaped California’s development patterns for the last half-century. Getting rid of parking requirements is a good start.


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