A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Parking Isn't "Affordable"

Two weeks ago, I wrote in my column in the Portland Daily Sun about the obscene expenses for parking garages that our city's planners impose on new publicly-subsidized housing construction:

Joe Lewis’s Planning Board, which approves and denies new construction projects, requires every new home and apartment built in our city to also build one parking space. Want to build a triple-decker on Munjoy Hill? You’ll need to make it a quadruple-decker for a three-car garage on the bottom floor. Want to build studio apartments for college students? They probably don’t drive, but you’ll still be forced to build a parking lot that’s bigger than the building itself.

The parking requirement is particularly onerous for builders who would like to build smaller, less expensive apartments, since it requires them to set aside nearly as much real estate for automobile storage (whether or not it's needed) as they do for rentable living space.

That’s the major reason why the nearly every new apartment building constructed here in the past decade has either required public subsidies, or been targeted and priced for the wealthy. The Planning Board’s obsession with building free parking literally makes it illegal for a private-sector builder to create affordable homes for the city’s thousands of non-motorist households.

Community Housing of Maine, a local nonprofit, is currently trying to finance a project on High Street with 38 apartments, at a cost of about $10 million. The high cost has turned the project and its state financiers into a political talking point for the right wing.

It's a worthy project that would add valuable homes for Portland's downtown workforce. And a number of the project's big-ticket expenses - the in-town real estate, the historic preservation elements - can be justified as things that advance the public good.

But the project's $500,000 underground parking garage unambiguously works against the public interest. Aside from jeopardizing the project's financial viability, the parking garage, if built, would only add more traffic and pollution to Portland streets, and decrease the amount of real estate available for the hundreds of car-free households that need affordable housing more than they need affordable parking.

The High Street project is within walking distance of thousands of downtown jobs and every single one of the region's bus routes. Instead of being forced to spend half a million dollars on a parking garage, affordable housing agencies should be spending their money on housing.

While I'm on the subject of expensive affordable housing, I'd also like to highlight this innovative social housing project built in Chile. Residents of a former slum were given new homes on the same site. Crucially, the architects approached the project "as an investment and not as an expense... to add value over time."

Designers from ELEMENTAL designed 100 no-frills townhomes to be built at dirt-cheap prices:

...but crucially, the design included voids between each home, each of which was intended for future home expansion to be funded and built by the residents themselves. Thus, the design actively encouraged residents to provide their own investments into their homes and neighborhood:

And thus, the residents themselves took the financial responsibility (and rewards) of adding new housing space to their homes, and of adding architectural variety to their neighborhood. The project didn't merely produce affordable housing: it provided a platform for low-income families to build financial equity.

Is this feasible in the USA, with our building codes and housing bureaucracies? It certainly ought to be.

Images courtesy of ELEMENTAL via archdaily.com.

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