Portland’s Parking Policy Puts Car Storage Before Housing Affordability

(Photo source: Streetsblog LA)

(Photo source: Streetsblog LA)

A brand new apartment building with 268 units on N. Williams Ave. opened last month.  This apartment is within a 10-minute walk from four TriMet bus routes (#4, #6, #24, & #44), a New Seasons grocery store, and served by the Vancouver-Williams bike lanes and two Biketown stations.  The location is excellent for carless Portlanders.  Since owning and operating an automobile can cost about $9,000 a year, savings from living without a car means that you have more budget for necessities like housing, health-care, or food.  By this logic, the City should encourage more housing development in neighborhoods with abundant transportation options to enhance affordability.

However, housing in transit-rich neighborhoods is becoming increasingly unaffordable.  In this new building, a one-bedroom unit costs as much as $1,870 a month. In addition, despite being very accessible by walking, biking, transit, and bike-share, this development includes 237 underground parking stalls (185 residential and 52 commercial), a luxurious amenity that does not benefit people without cars.

I was told by the leasing office that they are running a special offering 9-months of free parking to new tenants. So if you are a car residing in Portland, you will never be homeless because free parking is available almost everywhere.  But if you are a renter looking to live in a walkable and transit-accessible neighborhood, you may be out of luck.

Portland’s Perverse Priority: Shelter for Cars, Not Housing for People

In 2013, pressured by residents anxious about growth, City Council adopted a tiered system of minimum parking requirements for new development with more than 30 units.  Many housing and transportation advocates believe that this arbitrary mandate have suppressed housing supply and increased the costs of housing.

In September, the White House released a policy document stating that “[p]arking requirements generally impose an undue burden on housing development, particularly for transit-oriented or affordable housing.”  As housing gets more and more unaffordable in Portland, our city policy continues to prioritize provision of free park over affordable housing units. Moreover, minimum parking requirements act like a fertility drug for cars.  Portland’s 2013 parking mandate has undermined its own climate and transportation goals by inducing more driving, air pollution, and carbon output.

Parking Requirements Raise Income Requirements

Free parking isn’t free.  Underground parking costs about $55,000 per space to build according to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.  In this apartment building’s case, that is $1.3 million added to the development cost, and it is very likely that every unit is now marketed at a higher rate in order to recoup the high costs of free parking. In other words, parking requirements may have ended up raising the income requirements for living in transit-accessible neighborhoods.  

To afford paying $1,870 a month on rent, you would need to earn about $68,000 a year.  The units in this apartment building may have been more affordable if the development had cost $1.3 million less.  Affordable rental units in Portland’s transit accessible neighborhoods are diminishing and parking requirements exacerbates this issue by escalating new housing development costs.

Excessive Parking Supply Won’t Fix Neighborhood On-Street Parking

If a underground parking stall costs $55,000 to build, why would the building management offer 9-months of free parking?  Because while the City can require new development to provide on-site parking, it cannot require tenants to park in them.  As long as on-street parking remains free, tenants will be incentivized to use curb parking instead of paying to park on-site.  


Parking requirements force developers to over-supply parking, which they then give away for free because demand for paid parking is too low to fill the stalls.  But the high costs of free parking need to be recovered somehow.  As a result, carless tenants end up subsidizing other people’s free parking with their rent.

When buildings offer free parking, they are providing a strong incentive for new tenants to bring their cars with them.  In this case, after the 9-month free parking period is over, tenants who brought their cars with them will be inclined to park on the residential streets for free instead of starting to pay for off-street parking.  Neighbors who support minimum parking requirements hoping it would prevent parking spillover may soon find their plan backfiring.

As one resident states in her public testimony, Portland’s parking policy is absurd:

“I live in a building with garage parking that is not even full. I do not own a car, but my rent subsidizes the cost of these spots which were “free” at the time I signed my lease because the apartment company was unable to fill them with paying car owners. When I toured apartments on SE Division, THE LEASING AGENTS suggested that if I had a car it was better to park on the street because that was free but the building was charging for garage space. This is all so absurd! Street parking demands should be managed via a residential permitting system. Parking minimums will not help.” – Ellie H

We Can Fix It: Support Housing for People, Not Shelter For Cars

Mayor Hales has proposed to repeal the 2013 parking mandate with Amendment 34 to the Comprehensive Plan.  This amendment will effectively eliminate parking minimums for sites near frequent transit service.

This a critical opportunity to set housing for people as priority over shelter for cars, but it won’t happen without your help.  City Council needs to hear from you. You can take action in one of the following ways:

  1. Write today to City Council telling them why you support eliminating parking requirements. Write to cputestimony@portlandoregon.gov  with subject line “Comprehensive Plan Implementation”  Please cc: or bcc: pdxshoupistas@gmail.com. Tell them in your own words that housing is more important than car parking and they should pass Amendments 34 to the Comprehensive plan to eliminate minimum parking requirements in mixed use zones.
  1. If you are available to testify in-person on Thursday, November 17th (or if you can help sign others up at lunch) please RSVP here: https://goo.gl/forms/8ICMdizpy8nIUsZQ2  
  1. The Portland Independent Chamber of Commerce (http://picoc.org) is sending an open letter supporting this policy change. If you are a business owner, please sign-on. If you are not a business owner, ask your favorite small businesses (food carts, retailers, etc) to endorse this letter

More information about testifying can be found on this article

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