Underutilized parking lots are a costly waste. By managing parking more efficiently, cities can free up land to house people rather than cars.
Our current laws do not mandate housing for people, but all local jurisdictions mandate an abundant and costly supply of housing for motor vehicles. This is a huge and unfair subsidy for automobile use which increases housing costs, encourages driving, and forces car-free households to pay for expensive parking facilities they don’t need.
The costs are huge. Recent studies have counted the number of parking spaces that exist in various areas. They indicate that there are typically 3-6 off-street parking spaces per motor vehicle, with lower rates in central cities and higher rates in sprawled areas. Considering land, construction and operating expenses, a typical surface parking space has an annualized cost of $500-1,500, and structured parking costs about three times as much. Yet, most of this parking is provided free. Every time somebody purchases a vehicle they expect somebody else—businesses and local governments—to provide thousands of dollars worth of parking for its use, a matching grant for driving.
A large portion of urban land is devoted to off-street parking facilities (orange). With more efficient management, this could be used for housing.
What does this indicate about our communal values? We consider housing for automobiles a necessity that, by law, everybody must subsidize, while housing for people is optional, to be financed by users or subsidized at whatever level governments can fit into their budgets. This helps explain why so many cities have a housing unaffordability crisis.
This is a good time to reform our vehicle parking policies for affordability and efficiency. These reforms don’t eliminate parking supply, but they make parking facilities work harder, so parking lots serve multiple destinations and achieve higher occupancy rates, which reduces the number of spaces needed to serve demands.
Many studies indicate that conventional parking minimums result in far more spaces than are really needed, particularly for affordable housing in multimodal neighborhoods. For example, a recent study of multifamily developments in the Denver region found that 40% of spaces in market-based buildings and 50% of spaced in below-market buildings are virtually never used. A study of 27 mixed-use districts around the United States found that parking is oversupplied by 65% on average. A Seattle study found that developers built about 40% fewer parking spaces when parking minimums were eliminated in central neighborhoods. This research indicates that many urban developments could significantly reduce their parking supply, particularly if they implemented parking management programs, which could free up a lot of land for affordable housing.
Here’s one way to think about this issue. Most cities require between one and two parking spaces per housing unit, including secondary suites, townhouses and apartments. A typical off-street parking space is 10 x 20 feet and so requires about 200 square feet of land, and about double that to include driveways and access lanes. Assuming this totals about 333 per parking space, each parking space uses as much land as a 1,000 square foot three-story townhouse or apartment building. Requiring just one off-street space doubles the amount of land required per housing unit.
Parking typically represents 10-20% of total housing costs. A major study using data from the American Housing Survey found that parking facilities cost renter households approximately $1,700 per year, adding 17% to an average unit’s rent. This portion is higher for lower-priced housing in areas with high land prices. For example, two $50,000 parking spaces represent just 10% of the cost of a million dollar home, but one $40,000 space represents 20% of the cost of a basic $200,000 condominium. If parking represents 20% of residential development costs and parking supply is 50% higher than demand, more efficient parking management can reduce housing costs by 10% or more. For households that do not own an automobile, efficient parking requirements and unbundling parking can reduce housing costs by 10-20%.
Our city is currently experiencing a homeless crisis, and so allowes unhoused people to camp in some city parks, which harms the parks, and causes flooding problems during heavy rains. A local group is currently fundraising to build 30 container or modular houses to provide more comfortable housing. Such housing is relatively inexpensive, as low as $12,500 per home, and can be quickly installed, but requires sufficient land. Where? Underutilized parking lots are the obvious answer.
The best solution for permanent, affordable urban infill housing are generally missing middle types, such as townhouses and low-rise apartments. These are resource-efficient and generally have the lowest total costs, considering land, construction and future operating expenses. For example, a quarter-acre (10,000 square foot) parcel that currently accommodates about 30 parking spaces can instead hold 15-20 apartments averaging 1,000 square feet in a three- or four-story building, and still leave half of the parcel in green space, provided that residents can be satisfied with the five on-street parking spaces (eight if it is a corner lot), which avoids the costs and land requirements of off-street parking. This is typically sufficient for lower-income households living in walkable urban neighborhoods where many households are car-free.
A typical underused parking lot that could be used for temporary or permanent housing, if the City reduced parking requirements.
Cities can create more affordable housing by eliminating parking minimums and encouraging property owners to replace underutilized parking lots with moderate-priced housing. Even if the new units are initially not affordable to lower-income households, they increase overall affordability through filtering, as some of the new occupants move from nearby lower-priced housing, making it available to new families.
Next time you see an ugly, underutilized parking lot, think of it as a land bank for beautiful, affordable homes. Housing for people, not vehicles!