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

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Free Market Has Spoken: Rich People Don't Need That Much Parking (So Why Are We Still Forcing It on the Poor?)

The Bay House condominium project planned for the old Village Cafe lot in the India Street neighborhood has languished for over five years now.

In 2009, after the housing crash, the developers revised their project to add more parking spaces to a ground-level garage, to offer two parking spaces for every apartment in the complex. The additional parking made the building proposal much uglier and much more expensive, but the developers believed, at the time, that the extra parking spots would lure wealthy buyers.

Turns out, they were wrong. The extra parking added expense to the project, without adding much value. In the three years since then, Portland's housing shortage has gotten worse, with skyrocketing rents. The new condominiums on the top floor of the Hampton Inn building across India Street sold out within months, without an on-site parking garage. 
Now, the Bay House developers are going back before the Planning Board to request changes to their approval to make the building more cost-effective — and buildable. While the 2009 plan called for 159 parking spaces for 82 condos (or 1.92 parking spots for every unit), the 2012 plan calls for only 80 on-site parking spaces for 94 condos (0.85 parking spaces for every unit), with an arrangement to lease parking spaces in the half-empty, city-subsidized Ocean Gateway garage down the street, if necessary.

The laws of supply and demand in the free market for "luxury" housing have spoken: you can't sell new apartments with two expensive parking spaces and expect people (even rich people) to pay the price to justify the huge additional construction costs.

By requesting to build less parking, the developers are spelling it out for Portland planners that there is a demand for in-town housing, but there is a lot less demand for in-town parking. They're saying that they can sell expensive apartments, on the free market, to normal, able adults, at a profit to boot, even though not every one of those condos will have its own parking spot.

However. Portland's zoning codes still generally require developers to build at least one parking spot per dwelling unit on the peninsula; and TWO parking spots per unit off the peninsula, without regard to the laws of supply and demand.

What's especially ironic is that these rules apply disproportionately to developers of "affordable" housing — where even fewer residents own cars. Portland's Planning Board, and MaineHousing, still ask developers of subsidized housing to build at least one parking spot per dwelling unit for putatively "low-income" apartments — apartments for the POOR and DESTITUTE.

A luxury project like the Bay House, for people who can very easily afford to own a car, on the other hand, doesn't receive as many subsidies, has fewer bureaucratic strings attached, and therefore needs to waste less money and real estate on automobile storage areas.

If you still can't see how fucked up this is (don't worry, you have good company in City Hall and Augusta and on the Portland Planning Board), let me spell it out for you with some very basic logic:
  1. Real estate set aside for parking can not be used for housing. 
  2. Money spent on parking garages can not be spent on bedrooms.   
  3. Poor households don't own as many cars as rich households.
  4. Point (3) implies that low-income housing therefore needs fewer parking spaces per unit than high-income housing like the Bay House.
  5. Points (1), (2), and (4) imply that current city and state requirements that force nonprofit affordable housing developers to build as much or more parking than a luxury project like the Bay House are a waste of scarce financial resources, and needlessly deny needed housing to some of Portland's most vulnerable households.
  6. Corollary: any city planners who still can't grasp the five points above need mull it over overnight while lying on a disinfectant-soaked mattress on the crowded floor of the motherfucking Oxford Street homeless shelter. 

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