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Too much parking

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Cities like Seattle and San Francisco are expensive to live in for a host of well understood reasons (desirable location, many high-paying jobs, geographical limits on growth).  Another really important reason–public policies designed to prevent supply for housing from coming anywhere near matching demand–is often met with a great deal of denialism by people who have a vested interest in convincing themselves that lobbying the government to restrict growth and make an asset they own artificially scarce is actually consistent with their progressive and liberal identity (the frequency and sincerity of this conviction is probably what I miss least about Seattle).

But this study in Sightline points to an additional reason: seemingly irrational choices by developers about parking: they’ve been providing, on average, 37% more parking spaces than they actually use). Since reading Douglas Shoup’s masterpiece on the subject, I’ve been acutely aware of the hidden costs of “free” (and heavily subsidized) parking. (If the parking is surface, it comes at a superficially cheaper cost, but at costs to density and walkability; under- and above-ground parking is more density/walkability friendly, but far more expensive to construct). So I’ve long known that parking increases the costs of housing (especially, and perversely, for those who don’t own cars, since parking fees virtually never cover the actual costs of the parking spaces they rent, partially because when people are faced with the actual, un-hidden cost of car storage, they generally refuse to pay it). But if the developments in this study are representative, I had no idea how much I’d underestimated the effect:

Landlords’ losses on parking—calculated as the difference between total parking costs and total parking fees collected from tenants—add up to roughly 15 percent of monthly rents in our sample, or $246 per month for each occupied apartment. Because landlords typically recoup these losses through apartment rents, all tenants—even those who don’t own cars—pay a substantial hidden fee for parking as part of their monthly rents.

That’s huge. I wish the study tried to do more to untangle the causes. The leading suspects are:

1. Minimum parking requirements in zoning laws

2. Irrational decisions made by developers

3. A sort of hybrid of 1 and 2; developers reluctant to apply for variances or even build the legal minimum number of parking spaces, even in walkable and transit-adjacent locations, because the approval process for their project going smoothly depends in no small part on the neighborhood residents not raising a stink, and many neighborhood residents believe seem to believe they have an unalienable right to continued free access to parking on government land directly adjacent to their place of residence, and they have no problem imposing costs on future residents of their neighborhood to increase the likelihood they’ll retain that entitlement.

To the extent that the problem is (1), the correct path forward is obvious, if politically difficult. If it’s (2) and/or (3), it’s quite a bit more difficult to figure out what to do. Greater awareness of couldn’t hurt; renters, especially those who don’t own cars, should be angry about this state of affairs, but the vast majority of them probably have no idea the subsidy they’re being forced to provide for car owners.

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