Has Portland City Hall Learned Its Lesson About Parking Spaces Raising Rents?

City Council faces a test: Affordable housing vs. neighborhood livability.

Ben Schonberger has been saying for years that by forcing developers to add parking spaces to apartment buildings, Portland raises the cost of rent.

This year, it looks like the city is listening.

Schonberger, a board member of Housing Land Advocates, was disappointed in 2013, when Mayor Charlie Hales kicked off his return to City Hall by voting to require onsite parking for buildings with more than 30 apartments.

That policy change pacified homeowners alarmed by parking crunches, especially near booming Southeast Division Street. But parking requirements can also add costs for developers, which they pass along to renters.

In the midst of Portland's double-digit rent increases, Schonberger was surprised to discover this month that city planners recommended expanding that parking requirement throughout Northwest Portland.

"There was a bit of 'here we go again,'" Schonberger says. "It was exactly the same as the proposal put forward three years ago. If that proposal passes at City Council, it would drive up the cost of housing."

Schonberger and affordable-housing allies gained a temporary victory at a Planning and Sustainability Commission meeting on March 8: no new parking requirements.

The final decision now moves to Hales and his fellow members on the Portland City Council.

The vote presents another test for City Hall in a tug of war over housing construction that launched Hales' tenure and has often defined it: Should neighborhood livability trump keeping Portland affordable?

But the political calculus has shifted.

Rising rents in the past three years have supplanted street parking as the most polarizing issue in the city. And Hales, who in 2013 led the charge to increase parking requirements for developers, now says he'll vote against expanding them.

"There is more awareness around the housing affordability issue, which should give anyone pause when making regulations that increase the cost of housing," says Tony Jordan, founder of Portland Shoupistas, which advocates for progressive parking policies.

It will come as little surprise to people who live or work in Northwest Portland that parking spaces are scarce in the midst of a construction boom along Northwest 21st and 23rd avenues.

The city has started to address the parking problem—installing new meters this year and creating neighborhood permits, which cost $60 a year. In all, 7,000 permits have been issued for 6,000 available parking spaces, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Neighborhood groups have pushed for three years to add a parking requirement for new apartment buildings after realizing that the 2013 parking mandates carved out an exception for the area. Figures from the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability suggest that developers are in fact including parking. From 2006 to 2015, developers built 584 spaces in Northwest Portland—196 more than required under the proposed rules.

But not all housing developments in Northwest include parking. Take the Tess O'Brien at Northwest Overton Street near 19th Avenue: The pair of six-story buildings include 123 apartments, average size roughly 300 square feet, and no parking.

Rick Michaelson, chairman of the Northwest Parking District Stakeholder Advisory Committee, argues that parking spaces now are "full at all times" in his neighborhood.

"We are projecting another 10,000 housing units over the next 20 years," he says. "There will be no place to park their cars unless they displace current residents or we do some kind of rationing."

But Portland economist Joe Cortright argues that parking requirements add costs that developers pass along to renters.

"I think if we're serious about wanting to make housing more affordable," Cortright says, "we should essentially abolish the system we have of socialism for private car storage in the public right of way and end the requirements for people to have to build parking when they build more housing."

The conflict between new apartment buildings and neighbors' desire for plentiful street parking defined the beginning of Hales' term. He picked parking.

Before his run for mayor in 2012, Hales had championed policies to allow apartments of any size with no parking along transit corridors.

But residents have revolted against an onslaught of buildings with no parking—at least 224 apartments with no parking in a 13-block span ("Block Busters," WW, Sept. 18, 2012).

Hales bowed to neighbors, pledging his support for parking requirements during the 2012 campaign, then passing changes to city zoning code in the fourth month of his administration.

The mayor, who decided in October not to seek re-election and has since then focused primarily on housing and homelessness, now backs density over parking. His spokeswoman, Sara Hottman, says he will oppose new parking requirements in Northwest Portland.

She says this isn't a reversal for Hales, because he wanted the parking requirements expanded only in the corridors where he voted to add them in 2013.

"Mayor Hales has not changed his view," Hottman says. "He can't justify adding more parking for multidwelling development if it will potentially drive up the cost of housing, or incentivize car use in an already walkable, transit-rich area."

Three commissioners—Nick Fish, Amanda Fritz and Steve Novick—declined to say how they'll vote. But Dan Saltzman, the city's housing commissioner, says he's leaning against additional parking spots.

Schonberger says the decision will show whether the City Council really has learned a lesson about keeping rents down.

"They really get a choice between car storage and housing," he says. "If they're serious about affordability, I think it's a pretty clear choice."

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