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As Portland’s housing shortage boils over, its mandatory car-housing policy seems safe

Posted by on October 9th, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Justin Buri of the Community Alliance of Tenants tells Portland city council that Portland renters have a “right to the city” that is being denied by rising prices.
(Video: City of Portland)

At City Hall on Wednesday, a searing picture of what it means to be a low-income renter, looking for space in Portland’s housing crisis.

At City Hall on Thursday, a seemingly earnest discussion of whether it’s fair to charge cars more than $0 for taking up space.

Nobody is claiming that an opt-in neighborhood parking permit system — the main measure the city is considering — is anything close to a solution for Portlanders searching for housing amid one of the country’s worst housing shortages. Still, it was odd this week to watch Portland’s City Council lament as if capitalism mandated that even the very poor must pay for 130 square feet of bedroom, and then 21 hours later debate whether the government should continue to guarantee free 130-square-foot parking spaces almost everywhere in the city.

The city is not debating whether to stop requiring driveways bigger than cars to be built into most residential lots, whether or not the person moving in is going to need them.

The city is not debating whether to stop requiring most new apartment buildings to include on-site parking whether or not there is lots of open space on nearby streets.

The city is not debating whether to require apartment landlords to charge for garage or parking lot spaces separately from rent.

The city is not even debating whether to force anyone to start paying a penny for a curbside parking space unless people who live in nearby residential zones vote for it.

All of those measures are seen, on some level, as politically impossible.

empty lower garage

Street parking is free near SE 12th and Burnside, so most people aren’t willing to pay to park in Linden’s garage — which means the price of building the garage is instead included in the $1,400 rent.
(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

It’s impossible, the thinking goes, to explain to the public (or maybe to politicians) that once you sweep all the details away, it just makes no sense to have a city where a particular type of expensive machine can almost always be stored for free but every other object in society — refrigerators, bookshelves, toilets, grandfathers — is expected to pay market rate for the space it takes up.

It’s impossible, the thinking goes, for the public to understand that when the government offers free or cheap on-street parking, four dumb things happen simultaneously:

• Tenants park on the street instead of paying landlords what it costs to build on-site garages, so landlords distribute some or all of the cost of those parking garages among every tenant in the building, driving the price of new housing units up as much as 63 percent.

• If the rental market won’t bear those extra costs, then the building never gets built.

• Subsidized parking makes people own more cars, which drives up the price of building new homes, which further reduces the number of places where additional homes can profitably be built.

• The physical space required for all those cars to park for free, both on the street and almost everywhere else they go, pushes everything further from everything else, making it almost impossible to create more of the dense, walkable, pre-automotive neighborhoods where low-car life is actually viable. As the country’s population rises, the pre-automotive neighborhoods that remain are continuing to get scarcer.

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Instead of trying to explain these admittedly complicated ideas — or even the simple but foreign-sounding notion that a parking space is real estate in exactly the same way that a bedroom is — Portland is trying to explain one thing.

It’s trying to explain that if you don’t want it to be annoying to find a parking space on your street, one alternative is to to start charging people money to park there.

Every other option leads in only one direction: even higher housing prices.

Fortunately, the Portland City Council’s work session on parking yesterday offered some hope that Portland’s staff and city council understands this. Here’s paid-parking and housing-affordability advocate Tony Jordan, tweeting from the work session about the manager who’s overseeing the city’s modest parking reform effort:

Here’s Jordan on Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick’s understanding of parking economics, spelled out most famously by UCLA professor Donald Shoup:

From comments at the session, it’s clear that Mayor Charlie Hales is on board with this very modest measure of giving neighborhoods the option to vote on whether to start charging for overnight parking on residential streets.

It’s also clear that Commissioner Amanda Fritz is uneasy about any changes to the parking status quo. In this exchange with Novick, she argued that the city should issue more street parking permits in neighborhoods than its streets have room for, because she sees that as a way to let residents decide their parking fate.

Portland City Council

Portland’s city council: Steve Novick, Amanda Fritz, Charlie Hales, Dan Saltzman, Nick Fish.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

As is often the case on transportation issues, Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman are the swing votes.

Though a sensible parking system is just one of many, many measures that could help fix Portland’s housing crisis, one wonders whether Fish and Saltzman see any connection between Wednesday’s discussion of Portland’s shortage of space for people and Thursday’s discussion about its continuing policy of guaranteeing free space to cars.

Correction 10/12: A previous version of this post said the city requires most single-family residential lots to build space for two cars. In most cases, the city requires space for one car plus an additional 10 feet.

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Allan
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Allan

could a non-resident rent a parking space to live in? or several?

zholz
Subscriber

Major lol during the bit about storing “grandfathers” for free. 🙂

alankessler
Subscriber
alankessler

Fritz’s objections were incoherent to me. She’s concerned that the permit system might prevent new residents from getting passes if the passes were already allocated. (This is probably a red herring, most neighborhoods have plenty of curb space per house in aggregate.)

I believe her example was that a mother carrying kids and groceries needs to be able to park near her home, so she should be able to get a pass even if this means that there are more passes than parking spots.

She understands that this might mean that the same mother could come home to find out that all of the spots in the permit district are occupied, but she’s fine with that because the mom knew what she was getting into when she moved there and at least she has a chance of finding parking.

I can’t understand why she thinks it’s better to create a frustrating oversubscribed parking district rather than letting new residents know up front that if they want/need a car, they may wish to look in another, less crowded, area.

James
Guest
James

If you think cars are part of the reason there’s a housing shortage, you fundamentally misunderstand how urban development works. A few rules:

Rule #1: The politically and monetarily powerful make the rules.
Rule #2: When anything conflicts with #1, it is modified or the powerful are otherwise compensated.
Rule #3: Housing is built for profit and those able to buy–and all that they come with.

Transportation modes aren’t the problem. A disappearing middle class, decreasing number of families with children, the limits of growth, and a city falling over itself to plan for the monied is the problem.

Ask yourself: who do you think districts like the Pearl are for, exactly? Who are the $1400 “mixed use” apartment boxes in SE Portland for? Citizens are headed either sharply downward or sharply upward, economically speaking; there isn’t much middle road.

You can send Richard Florida a big thank-you note for some of this.

Lester Burnham
Guest
Lester Burnham

A “right to the city” ? Oh please.

Dan
Subscriber

Amen. Put that article on a t-shirt and I’ll wear it.

alankessler
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alankessler

I hear this argument often:

“• Tenants park on the street instead of paying landlords what it costs to build on-site garages, so landlords distribute some or all of the cost of those parking garages among every tenant in the building, driving the price of new housing units up as much as 63 percent.”

It doesn’t ring true. Minimum parking requirements will mean that some projects never get built, and this will further constrain supply. Developers will guess as to what market rents will be for a particular building and use that to determine whether and what to build.

However, once buildings are built, the managers will price them as high as the market will bear. At this point, the price of rent is not driven by construction costs, it’s driven by the rental market.

Without inclusionary zoning rules or some other mechanism, there’s no reason why developers won’t use the extra space and budget to simply build more luxe units rather than increase the number and build affordable ones.

Eliminating minimum parking requirements is necessary, but not sufficient to create affordable housing. We also need to be able to require or encourage developers to use the extra space/budget in the right way.

Wondering
Guest
Wondering

Where would charging for parking leave the 100’s (1000’s?) of people living in their vehicles? Would it push them farther from walkable neighborhoods, transit and services?

Adam
Subscriber

Parking minimums should be eliminated entirely in neighborhoods that have other options. People that want to live in neighborhoods that were designed around the streetcar with narrow lanes and plentiful sidewalks, but still want to drive everywhere miss the point entirely. It’s exactly because your neighborhood was designed for people, not cars, that makes it so appealing!

Make people pay for car registration and parking based on the neighborhood’s walk score. Higher walk score, higher price of car ownership.

AIC
Guest
AIC

If housing prices (rentals and ownership) are increasing in the inner city, then those that get bumped just move farther out…. right? This is nothing new. This is how Vancouver was born and Beaverton was ruined. Money is king, and if you are occupying a space that could be “remade” into a highly profitable cash money maker, then you better start packing your things.
I could not afford a house close-in 10 years ago, so I live out east of 205…and love it! Even though I work near the Willamette river, I find the bike commute perfect.
Sorry, maybe I am an ass (most likely), but I just don’t have a lot of sympathy for whiners.

chris
Guest
chris

Nice write-up. This isn’t complicated:

Step 1. Abolish mandatory parking minimums for new development.
Step 2. Abolish unlimited free parking on public streets. The street is not your free storage bin. Either charge a market rate dependent upon demand, or sell X number of residential permits and require everybody else to move their car every couple of hours.

They do this in most European cities, and it works.

Mark
Guest
Mark

I drive around Portland and see all manner of buildings that are one level and complete wastes of space. Land value alone isn’t going to solve the issue of throwing renters out on their ears like they are vermin. What is going to solve this issue is, strong civil laws that put renters back on firm legal ground with landlords. Landlords have figured out the easiest way to evict is to simply raise rents on an astronomical level.

That has to change.

When it does change, cities and states need to add treble penalties for breaking this new law so that lawyers come in and sue the landlord. That’s how warranty law for cars is enforced, that’s how this should be enforced. Just throwing some law out there without massive financial penalties is no different than throwing up a 25mph sign on the banfield.

James
Guest
James

By the way, NYC–by all accounts one of the densest cities in the country–has a ~54% transit ridership rate.

It’s housing is some of the least affordable in the world.

It’s also predicted to approach 24-hour gridlock by around 2030.

That’s right: NYC has dense urban dwellings, extremely high public transit ridership, AND gridlock.

Why do so few understand that this isn’t a game of SimCity?

q`Tzal
Guest
q`Tzal

Could we give residents free secured car parking at a lot somewhere on the outskirts of town but near enough to public transportation that it can be easily accessed 24/7?

Even Crawford of CarFree Cities made concessions to the fact that car ownership can be useful outside a walkable city. So, he imagined districts on the periphery of the city where car owners could store the vehicles they don’t need in town.

Basically, the requirement to provide parking could be adjusted to allow for parking much further away.

BJCefola
Subscriber

Great article Michael Anderson!

It’s insane that we’re talking about a housing state of emergency, but not talking about a policy change a few years ago that many predicted would restrict the supply of new housing and push developers towards fewer-unit, higher-end construction.

I agree with those who say the housing crisis is man-made, but I don’t think it was made by wall street or developer boogeymen. It was made by regular Portlanders who refused to make room.

Paul Gross
Guest
Paul Gross

One of the more ridiculous stories and or reasonings I’ve read in awhile. So, when I plant a tree in my own home, eventually I will have to pay for the space (up) by the author’s “reasonings”. Making a minor problem into a major one. It’s simple. Most of the neighborhoods weren’t designed for the ” growth” so learn from this. If you are a resident, you get a permit to park your dumb car-FOR FREE-because of the TAXES you pay that go to road maintenance. The city and or property management hires a enforcement or parking cop to ticket those who do not live in said area and would be self sufficient. Period. Portland is getting dumb and is being ruined by this growth. It’s now ridiculously expensive and we have problems with no problem solvers. It’s all about the dollar bill at the end of the day, which gets passed down to us all. “Oh, what if I want to see eagle eye scout for coffee on Hawthorne, but there’s no parking*. Go to one of the 200 Starbucks that was BUILT WITH PARKING and get a god damn clue…or don’t drive EVERYWHERE! Anyone noticing or thinking ahead how RIDICULOUS we’ve made our lives when we have to worry about where to put 4000lbs of steel????

Mark
Guest
Mark

It’s odd to me that residential owners complain about people parking on “their” street. Who is stopping the resident from installing a driveway? Parking requirements for new buildings is asenine. If the builder thinks they can get money for it…great. If not…let the street hold them. Of demand grows for parking, let the city sort it out with a fee. No resident is owed a parking spot in front of their house. Ever. Unless that resident pays for that street and owns it.

Dead Salmon
Guest
Dead Salmon

I did not hear Justin speak about car parking driving up rents – that’s because it has no effect on rents. However, pay-to-park drives up the cost of living for everyone – but hurts the poor the most.

Residential lots with driveways only wide enough for 1 car are not a good solution because most couples who work have 2 cars.

Neighborhoods where there is no parking is not viable because people who move there because a job is within walking distance, will likely get another job soon and have to drive to the new job since public transport to many locations is too slow and inconvenient due to bus/train transfers, etc. People do not want to have to move every time they get a new job – as Justin explained they can’t afford to just get up and move.

The fact is that on-street parking is the way it is because it works very well. If there had been a better system, that system would have been built. People across America expect to have free on-street residential parking – that’s the way it has always been as long as anyone can remember.

The fact that people are unwilling to pay the fee to park in parking garages proves that people don’t want to pay for parking. Or perhaps the fee is too high, but given the choice of free or not free people will choose free every time. Contrary to popular belief, American’s aren’t totally stupid.

The video reminds me of the unhappiness and social unrest in parts of Europe due to their current economic depression. Makes me wonder how bad our trillions of debt and governmental meddling will eventually become here in the US.

Dead Salmon
Guest
Dead Salmon

Parking isn’t a problem if you know what you are doing:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jhZZzpeQo4

Mossby Pomegranate
Guest
Mossby Pomegranate

Why is this story even on BIKE Portland?

Tom
Guest
Tom

I believe part of the solution needs to be a regional housing plan with teeth that requires new office space to be matched with an equivalent amount of housing. The cities permit new office space, so they can require that the developer either plan or partner with another developer to build enough housing regionally to accommodate the amount of new workers that will occupy there new office space.

Also I think it may be counterproductive to push for only “affordable” new housing. We just need more total housing space. Some people will always be looking to move up the housing ladder to a nicer place, due to promotions, because they become dual income, etc. The space they vacate then becomes open affordable housing. It just a PEZ puzzle. You need to create the space first, then it allow people to shift around. Affordable housing should be the older places, not the fancy new buildings. Pushing developers to build brand new affordable housing will only slow down the process of increasing total housing.

In the meantime, while housing is catching up, the region can use taxes to put the breaks on corporate expansion in the area, opposite to what SF did. Then when housing catches up they can ease back up to keep the local economy healthy.

We also need zoning reform big time, to allow the new housing to be built.

The city will tell you their hands or tied and they can’t do anything. Its not true…they could do a lot. They are just doing their job.

Beth
Guest

The caption provided for the video at top (…”Portland renters have a “right to the city” that is being denied by rising prices”) is a key element in the failure of Portland — or ANY popular “destination” city — as remaining “affordable”.

We live in a Capitalist economy. Privately-owned, profit-driven.
It is very nearly impossible for Capitalism NOT to run away with itself.
History has shown us this time and again. (Go back and read Heilbrunner, econ students.)
An economic system based on self-interest does not generally place the notion of “human rights” at its core. And as we’ve all seen, those with the most power to lose [in a more equitable system] will spend the most money to keep things as they are.

Granted, this is an oversimplified assessment of the issue.
But as the middle class rapidly shrinks into extinction and the gap between “haves” and “have-nots” stretches wider, we will have less and less room for nuance in the discussion. I do not hold out much hope that things will greatly improve here.

I no longer fancy myself as part of the “middle class”, even though my partner and I pay a mortgage instead of rent. When I realized how hard I’d have to work and how much money I’d have to earn to maintain the illusion, I stopped telling myself that lie. The illusion is not attainable for us.
Before my life is over, I fully expect to be squeezed out of my home, and out of Portland. I am spending my limited resources acquiring new skills, networking like mad and checking out other possible cities for eventual relocation, instead of fighting a battle I know I cannot win.

Dead Salmon
Guest
Dead Salmon

Article on why rents are high:
http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/01/06/260282186/eight-reasons-why-the-rent-is-too-damn-high

His number 1 reason why rents are so high:
People with money want to live there.