Why some Texas cities are getting rid of their minimum parking rules

ByJoshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune
Monday, March 18, 2024
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In car-dependent Texas, most cities have rules on how many parking spots must be built anywhere people live, play, or do business. But those requirements have come under scrutiny in recent years, with critics saying they do more harm than good.

As the nation tries to curb carbon emissions and fight climate change, climate activists and urbanists have chided the regulations for encouraging car dependency. Housing advocates and developers have also identified those minimums as a barrier to building more homes and taming housing costs.

"This is a pretty obvious target for helping to address (the housing affordability crisis)," Tony Jordan, co-founder of Parking Reform Network, said.

In major Texas cities like Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and El Paso, developers usually can't build single-family homes or apartments without parking. Government regulations like those, critics argue, effectively force housing developers to provide parking spots where they may have instead built housing - contributing to higher home prices and rents.

Doing away with parking minimums doesn't mean parking will be abolished, reform proponents say. For instance, cities without parking mandates still must require properties to comply with federal law and build accessible parking spaces for people living with disabilities. And proponents expect developers will still build parking spots even if they're not required to. But the decision of how much parking they should provide, reformers argue, should be left up to builders, not local governments.

Austin last year became the largest city in the country to do away with its minimum parking requirements, following in the steps of other major cities like Portland, Minneapolis and San Jose. Nixing parking minimums is part of a slate of reforms in Austin to loosen city land-use regulations and allow more housing to be built amid the city's severe housing affordability crisis.

Before the parking rules were overturned, Austin required single-family homes to have at least two parking spots and apartment buildings to have one-and-a-half spaces for every one-bedroom apartment, plus half a space for every additional bedroom. Those requirements drove up construction prices and resulted in higher rent bills. A city estimate projected that requiring one additional parking space per unit raised monthly rent by up to $200.

If you're not having to use land for parking, you can use it for housing
Claudia Aiken, Furman Center and Housing Solutions Lab

And at a time when Austin is trying to beef up its public transit to the tune of billions of dollars and encourage denser transit-friendly development, policymakers concluded it didn't make sense to continue requiring a minimum amount of parking spots.

"A city like Austin that has adopted progressive mobility, affordability and climate goals should not be in the business of requiring an arbitrary amount of car storage in every new development," Austin City Council Member Zohaib "Zo" Qadri, the proposal's author, said in a statement after the November vote.

Dallas could soon take Austin's place as the largest U.S. city to get rid of its parking requirements. In January, a subcommittee of the Dallas City Plan Commission advanced a plan to nix parking minimums - a proposal the Dallas City Council could take up this year.

Dallas is also facing a dire housing shortage. The Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan region surpassed 8 million people last year, and that booming population growth has put pressure on its housing stock. Dallas by itself is short some 33,000 homes that would fall within the price range of the city's lowest earners, according to an estimate from the Child Poverty Action Lab. That shortage is expected to balloon to 83,000 by the end of the decade.

Allowing housing developers to determine how much parking they need rather than imposing city requirements on them is one way to speed up the development process and chip away at those needs, according to Michael Wade, senior planner in Dallas' planning and urban design department.

The current requirements are "slowing things down to a rate that makes it hard to meet our housing goals," Wade said.

Rethinking parking in Texas

Reforming parking requirements isn't just a big-city fixation. The week after Austin got rid of its parking minimums, Taylor, a town of about 17,000 people perched about an hour away, did the same as part of a broader rewrite of its land development code to allow denser housing stock. Taylor is the latest Texas town to ditch its minimum parking requirements, joining Bandera and Bastrop, according to the Parking Reform Network.

Taylor nixed its parking minimums, Assistant City Manager Tom Yantis said, in an effort to bring down housing costs, boost their tax base by allowing denser development, and encourage more walkable development - in line with how the town developed in its early years before the rise of the automobile and parking minimums.

"If we start to build neighborhoods that are built around small walkable blocks, maybe in the future we'll have the opportunity in neighborhoods for people to walk or bicycle to the grocery store," Yantis said.

Minimum parking spot mandates arose as automobile ownership took off in the middle of the last century. U.S. cities adopted these rules in an attempt to ease a shortage of curb parking spots, relieve traffic congestion, and accommodate suburban commuters and shoppers arriving to the urban core by car. Now, it's common for cities to have rules on the books determining how much parking should be built with homes and businesses like grocery stores, restaurants, offices, video game arcades and even places that serve and sell alcohol.

Critics say those requirements have had nasty side effects, including increased sprawl, overreliance on cars, and a proliferation of unsightly parking lots. If people know there's a parking spot waiting for them at their destination, they're more likely to take a car than other modes of transportation. Parking is an invisible cost even when it appears to be free, they argue - landlords and businesses ultimately pass on the cost of providing that parking to consumers via routine costs like monthly rent, grocery bills, and restaurant tabs.

Some of the rules are also fairly arbitrary, opponents say. Jordan points out that, for example, Dallas requires sewage treatment plants to provide one parking spot for every million gallons of capacity, and water treatment plants must provide two spots regardless of capacity.

"The constraint is completely artificial," Jordan said. "It's just based on some number that someone put in a book 40 or 50 years ago."

We are asking you as the city to help protect our neighborhoods
Laura Palmer, Dallas resident

Parking minimums drive up the cost of housing, too, critics say. A spot in a typical parking lot can cost between $5,000 to $10,000, some estimates show, while a spot in a parking garage can cost from $25,000 to $65,000. Landlords then pass the cost of building and maintaining those parking spots on to tenants - who are more likely to have fewer cars than homeowners or not own one at all - in the form of higher rents.

"If you're not having to use land for parking, you can use it for housing," Claudia Aiken, director of new research partnerships at New York University's Furman Center and Housing Solutions Lab, said. "If you're not pouring that money into developing parking, you could provide units that are more affordable."

Minimum parking requirements can limit how many housing units are built on a lot and discourage builders from creating homes with more bedrooms. In Dallas, housing developers must build one to two parking spots for single-family homes and one space for every bedroom in an apartment.

When designing a mixed-income development with 21 units that includes townhomes, duplexes, and fourplexes in South Dallas, the city's parking requirements limited how many housing units could ultimately go on the lot, said Lisa Neergaard, associate director of planning at buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, a nonprofit architecture and planning firm. The rules also prevented designers from including more three-bedroom units designed to accommodate families, Neergaard said.

"Land was pretty inexpensive for a very long time, so parking was not as big of a burden," Neergaard said. "But as the value of our land continues to increase because the amount of available land is decreasing, parking is infinitely more expensive."

Life without parking minimums

Cities elsewhere that have retooled or nixed their parking minimums saw more home construction in the aftermath. Minneapolis got rid of its minimum parking requirements as part of a slate of reforms intended to spur housing production - which has helped the city keep rent growth in check and build housing at a quicker clip than other places in Minnesota and the Midwest, the Pew Charitable Trusts found. Seattle and Buffalo, New York, also saw more homes built after reducing or getting rid of their parking requirements.

Getting rid of parking requirements has its detractors. Neighborhood groups and residents opposed to such reforms worry that developers will skimp on parking spots, forcing drivers who can't find adequate parking at their destination to search for it on neighboring streets and clog traffic. Laura Palmer, a Dallas resident, told the city panel that approved a proposal to nix parking minimums that patrons of the nearby Bishop Arts District, a pedestrian-friendly collection of shops, restaurants, and bars, already take up the curb on streets in her neighborhood.

"We are asking you as the city to help protect our neighborhoods," she told the panel in January.

There are ways to make sure that neighborhoods don't suffer spillover effects, reform proponents argue, like only allowing residents to park on residential blocks or installing parking meters. But Dallas city staff and transportation officials with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which coordinates transportation planning for the region, agree that parking in "local districts, main street-like corridors, and transit-oriented developments tends to be either adequate for auto demand or to even far surpass demand," Dallas officials wrote in a recent report.

The decision of how much remaining parking to build will simply be left to developers, proponents say, and financiers are unlikely to back developments without parking if they think offering a certain amount of spaces makes financial sense. After Seattle retooled its parking requirements, developers built about 40% less parking than they would have without the changes, one study found. But more than two-thirds of developments that weren't required to build parking still included some, the study found.

It will likely take years, if not generations, to see the full effects of abolishing parking mandates, Wade said, but it's a small step to allowing denser development and weaning people off of cars.

"We have the power to become an even more resilient city and provide that to the next generation," Wade said.

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