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Prioritizing Housing Over Parking

Cutler Bay, Florida, reduced its parking spot requirements to gain more housing for older adults. Here's how the two are connected

The typical waiting time for a unit to open up in senior housing in Cutler Bay, Florida, is three years. One solution for that problem, says Ralph Casals, Cutler Bay’s town manager, “is to incentivize developers to construct affordable senior housing.”

Parking Is Pricey to Build

An empty parking lot

iStock photo

$5,000: Cost per surface space

$25,000: Cost per above-ground garage space

$35,000: Cost per below-ground garage space

$142: The typical cost renters pay per month for parking

+17%: Additional cost of a unit's rent attributed to parking

Source: Housing Policy Debate (2016) via American Planning Association

“The town code requires developers to build two parking spaces per apartment," he explains. "So as a municipality with its own town council, in 2019 we passed an ordinance to reduce to one the number of required parking spaces when building senior housing. Since a single parking space can cost as much as $20,000 to acquire and build, we’ve reduced the cost of the project for developers.”

“Many seniors have one car that they share and some use public transportation, so there’s no need for every apartment to have two spaces,” adds former Vice Mayor Sue Ellen Loyzelle, who was instrumental in getting the ordinance passed. “The change also allows for less blacktop and more green space, which is good for the environment and good for residents.”

The revised parking requirement inspired developer Andy Atrio to submit a proposal for an eight-story, 99-unit senior complex that was quickly approved by the town council. “The cost of parking spaces has increased in the last year due to construction price increases," says Atrio. "It’s great we don’t have to build spaces that will go unused.”

Unused parking spaces are often a direct result of building code-based minimum parking requirements that require a fixed number of parking spaces for new construction projects. Parking mandate laws began to spread across the country in the early 1950s with the boom in car ownership. 

Donald Shoup, a distinguished research professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, is widely considered to be the parking policy guru. He has written extensively about the effects of minimum parking requirements, most notably in his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking

Picturing Less Parking

Map showing communities with reduced or without parking minimums

Map by Strong Towns

Click on the image to visit this interactive map on the Strong Towns website.

Strong Towns, a nonprofit that advocates for “new ways of thinking about the way we build our world,” tracks communities that have made progress toward removing parking minimums.

An article Shoup co-authored with Laura Friedman, a member of the California State Assembly, Bloomberg CityLab, states: “Minimum parking requirements … force developers to set aside vast amounts of valuable land and construction budgets to create vehicle parking for residential and commercial buildings alike. These outdated planning policies make it difficult to build more multi-family homes within urban boundaries, fueling an unprecedented housing shortage that is entirely artificial in origin.”

Minimum parking requirements, the authors note, even apply to low-income housing projects where many residents can’t afford to own a car.

In April 2021, Friedman introduced legislation to eliminate parking requirements for new construction projects in transit-rich areas. “For decades we have prioritized space to park cars over space to house people,” she said when AB-1401 was announced. “There are plenty of communities in our state that have access to high-quality transit, or where cars are underutilized, that need housing far more than they need parking.” (At press time, the bill was still in committee.)

A reform movement to reduce parking is slowly taking hold. In 2017, Buffalo, New York, became the first major city in the United States to eliminate parking minimums. Other citiesincluding San Francisco and Berkeley, California, and both Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota — followed. Many towns and even suburbs have either eliminated, altered or reduced their parking minimums. (See the Strong Towns interactive map above to learn more.) 

In Cutler Bay, Casals was determined to move parking reform forward. “When I’m a guest speaker in other communities, I tell them about this incentive,” says Casals. “It’s something we had written into our action plan. I’m a true believer in carrying out action plans. Otherwise they just sit on the shelf.” (Follow the link below to see Cutler Bay's 2018-2023 action plan.)

Reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner  | Page published October 2021

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