Morning Crank: A Proposal to Bar Renters from Parking on City Streets

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1. This morning at 9:30, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning (PLUZ) committee will hold a public hearing on a proposal that would reform parking requirements to allow more housing to be built without parking in dense, transit-rich neighborhoods. The parking update would also require developers who do build parking to charge separately for rent and parking, so that people who don’t own cars wouldn’t have to pay for parking spaces they don’t use. (A 2012 study of 95 Seattle apartment buildings Seattle concluded that about 35 percent of parking spaces sit vacant at night, meaning that developers are building more parking than they need. On-site parking, according to a 2013 report from the Sightline Institute, inflates the cost of rent by around 15 percent. Essentially, many renters are paying for an extra 200 square feet of housing for cars they don’t have.)

The legislation would also change the definition of “frequent transit service” to an average frequency taken by measuring actual arrival times over an hour and ten minutes, a change that would effectively expand the areas where new apartments can be built without parking. Currently, the city allows developers to construct buildings without parking if they’re located within a quarter mile of frequent transit service, defined as service that arrives every 15 minutes or less. The problem is that if this rule is interpreted in the most literal possible way—by standing at the bus stop and measuring when each bus arrives—even one late bus per hour can disqualify a whole neighborhood. Since this is obviously ridiculous, the new rules propose to redefine “frequency” by measuring average arrivals over an hour and ten minutes; if buses arrive every 15 minutes, on average, then the service counts as frequent.

Despite the fact that the city has a longstanding official goal of reducing car ownership and solo car trips in the city,  the idea of allowing—not requiring, but allowing—new apartments that don’t come with “free” parking on site remains intensely controversial. (About half of all apartments in Seattle include parking in the cost of rent, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections). Council member Lisa Herbold, who recently questioned the city’s conclusion that much of the new parking that’s being built goes unused, wrote a blog post last Friday arguing that despite the fact that many renters don’t own cars (about 40 percent of those who live in the quarter of Seattle’s Census tracts with the largest percentage of renters), plenty of residents in other parts of town still have cars, and shouldn’t have to fight for on-street parking with tenants in apartment buildings that lack garages. Specifically, Herbold said she still has “concerns” about changing the definition of frequent transit service to a more flexible standard that acknowledges factors like traffic. “I still have to analyze the impacts of the proposed changes, but my fundamental concern is still that I question whether the case has been made to demonstrate a correlation between transit ridership and a reduction in car ownership, and therefore not needing a place to park a vehicle,” Herbold wrote.

Herbold’s blog post includes several maps that do, in fact, indicate that some areas in Herbold’s district—where, she notes pointedly, 82 percent of people own cars—will newly qualify as having “frequent transit service” under the new rules. This, she suggests, could indicate that the council is being too hasty in expanding the areas of the city where developers can build without parking based on access to frequent bus service. However, what Herbold doesn’t note is that most of the areas where the definition of “frequent” service will be expanded are inside urban villages or future urban villages, where developers can already build without parking, and where the percentage of renters is already high—in her own district, for example, the neighborhoods where transit will be considered “frequent” under the new rule include Highland Park and South Park, where, according to Herbold’s maps, between 50 and 68 percent of residents rent, and where far fewer households (37 percent and 29 percent of renters and homeowners, respectively), don’t own cars.

2. Anti-development activist Chris Leman circulated an email last week urging recipients to testify or write letters condemning the proposed new “frequent transit” definition. “On-street parking is no frill or luxury,” Leman writes. “It’s central to neighborhood safety and livability; to business success; and to mobility for children, seniors, the disabled, everyone.” (The entire concept behind Safe Routes to School, by the way, is that kids should be able to get to school safely without being driven there in a car). “Without on-street parking,” the email continues, “our residents could not go about their lives, and our restaurants and other small businesses would suffer or fail.” It goes on to suggest several policy “solutions,” including new rules barring renters from parking on city streets once they get above 85 percent capacity.

This, then, is the logical conclusion of some property owners’ (incorrect) belief that they have a “right” to park in front of their house: A two-tiered system in which only property owners have the right to access public spaces. I’m sure it won’t be long before we hear this argument applied to other public spaces, such as parks and libraries, too: If we’re willing to ban people without assets from using public streets, why wouldn’t we be willing to ban them from using other public assets? A truly fair system, of course, would be one in which everyone pays equally for parking (instead of getting subsidized parking on the street in front of their house for free), but I won’t hold my breath waiting for anti-development activists to advocate for that one.

3. After holding a typically boisterous committee hearing to protest cuts to hygiene centers and to shelters run by SHARE/WHEEL (I called it a “rally,” she called it a “town hall”), council member Kshama Sawant got her wish: The council restored $1 million in funding for SHARE/WHEEL and Urban Rest Stops, ensuring that they will be funded for another year. (The money was restored as part of legislation approving the sale of city-owned land in South Lake Union, which I’ve covered in more detail here and here.) According to a Human Services Department document explaining why the group didn’t receive funding, SHARE and WHEEL’s shelter proposals cost too much per bed and did not address racial equity goals; SHARE’s application, in particular, was “the lowest scoring application among shelters serving single adults, and had poor performance data; lack of specific examples; lack of specificity about actions/policies in cultural competency; high barriers to entry; more focus on chemical dependency compliance than on housing; concerns about fiscal capacity.” (The Seattle Times covered some of the controversies surrounding SHARE back in 2013).

Oh, and if you’re wondering how the council came up with that $1 million: They found the money lying around in last year’s real estate excise tax (REET) revenues, which, according to the city’s calculations, came in $1 million higher than originally estimated.  That allowed them to reallocate $1 million that was supposed to go to a new fire facility to the programs that were cut last year.  All this new funding comes from one-time expenditures, meaning that the city will have to find long-term funding sources in future years if they want to keep them going—a proposition that, like everything else that relies on tax dollars, is easier to do in boom times than in bad.

4. Mayor Jenny Durkan hit many of the themes she’s been talking about during her first three months in office in her first State of the City speech yesterday at Rainier Beach High School (which also happened to be the first State of the City speech by a female mayor in Seattle’s history.) The speech, which I livetweeted from the auditorium, was generally sunny and full of promises, like free college for every Seattle high school graduate and free ORCA transit passes for every high school student —typical in years when the economy is booming. Durkan also touched on the homelessness crisis, the possibility of an NHL franchise (put deposits down for your season tickets starting March 1, she said), and her campaign promise to pass a domestic workers’ bill of rights. And she alluded briefly to the fact that the economy can’t stay on an upswing forever—an unusual admission in such a speech, although one that was somewhat contradicted by her promises to put more money into education, homeless shelters, and transportation. And, as I noted on Twitter,  Durkan also said she supported building new middle- and low-income housing across the city: “We need to speed up permitting, add density, and expand our housing options in every part of this city,” she said. But that, too, was somewhat undercut by a comment later in Durkan’s speech, when she said—citing a sentiment that has become conventional wisdom, fairly or not—that “growth” itself “has made it hard for the middle class” to get by.

 

8 thoughts on “Morning Crank: A Proposal to Bar Renters from Parking on City Streets

  1. Growth hurts current residents because of high turnover rates in jobs at major corporations. Corporations are not engaging in employee retention. To the contrary they are conducting rough performance review policies, where people with 15 years of experience at a company and stellar education are written up for things like not talking enough or talking too much. Companies are constantly bringing in people who aren’t from the area, then dumping them jobless into the Seattle area housing market within a couple of months to seven years . And government bodies are not showing the courage to stand up to companies and telling them to start providing job security and gear their HR systems to employee retention. At will employment needs to be abolished and employees need to have more protection. There is ample data of the average tenure at a job in major companies in the Seattle area. With steady jobs, young people would get married and purchase a home and they wouldn’t have to worry about rent increases and inundate the rental housing market.

  2. The way to encourage people to be car-free is to have ubiquitous small buses and to make the streets and public transportation safe for women at night. No one talks about women’s safety on the streets when they talk about people living with cars. And they have to encourage the hiring of more women drivers ride companies.

  3. OTOH Allocating parking permits to property owners based on the parkable property frontage seems relatively fair so long as the permits are transferable (and hence useable by renters, friends etc.). And it’s a tiny (zero?) price to pay for increasing density even if it comes across as ostensibly sleazy or unfair.

  4. I live in an urban village where they have been building with far fewer parking spots than living units for a while now, and you can see it in the diminished street parking. While I don’t oppose the practice I wonder about some of the numbers presented.

    Sightline’s “sandwich” article says about 20% of people in apartments park “elsewhere” than their garage. Doesn’t conjecture where, but based on the people I know who live in places with garages like that I guess “elsewhere” could be on the street, because it is easier or more convenient. And as street parking diminishes, they will be choosing to park in the garage, using a lot of the 35% now going unused.

    People in apartments have as much right to street parking as homeowners, and I also know SF homeowners who park in the street for similar reasons, though they have off-street spots. But if most of the unused parking capacity for apartment buildings is really people parking in the street, doesn’t a big part of the argument for lowering parking requirements (already low in urban villages) go away? It would be nice to have a deeper look at the numbers.

  5. I don’t necessarily have a problem with reducing parking requirements. It would also reduce the price of construction and therefore housing costs. But, the part about decoupling rent and charges for parking space may will have negative consequences. first, why not raise the overall rent so the parking portion is reflected in the living space rent and then charge a premium for the parking. To make it work the council would need to define the comparative amount charged respectively for parking and living space. Otherwise a landlord with ample offstreet parking would attribute maybe $10 for the parking space. I would think anything which regulates the amount or apportions a required % between living and parking space would be challenged in court as rent control. Then again, I think we would have more success overall if the city council looked to landlords as people interested in helping, rather than an enemy to affordable housing.

    • Realistically, landlords are neither people interested in helping or enemies to affordable housing. They are simply people renting their property for profit. The City has no reason to see them with any other lens, nor does anyone else.

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