Photo by Shane Harms
“Nothing stokes neighborhood passion like parking, but a lot of that passion comes from the belief that parking is naturally free or cheap, but that’s not the case,” said Williams-Derry.

Sightline study says ‘Free parking is never free'

Sightline Institute just announced a study that reveals there is no such thing as “cheap” parking.

The researchers, Clark Williams-Derry and Jesse London, surveyed 23 recently constructed multifamily developments. They found that on average 37 percent of parking spaces remained vacant during the night -- peak time for parking demand. Of the 23 developments all had vacancies during the night and more than twice, four developments had twice as many parking spots as parked cars. Further still, 21 out of the 23 developments had more occupied apartments than parked cars in their lots.

“Nothing stokes neighborhood passion like parking, but a lot of that passion comes from the belief that parking is naturally free or cheap, but that’s not the case,” said Williams-Derry.

Williams-Derry said the goal of the study was to reveal that there are hidden costs in rent and that developers are actually losing money by building more parking than is needed.

The study sates that when developers build housing with parking areas, and especially with expensive underground parking, they plan to recoup these costs from high rents, but more than just tenants pay for it:

“The public pays through higher taxes and fees. Consumers pay through higher retail prices. Developers and property owners pay through higher construction costs. And tenants pay through higher rents.”

The higher rents, explains Williams-Derry, subsidizes the high cost for the parking areas.

“People might think that the parking spots are just sitting there paid for after they have been built, but that’s not completely true because you have to build it, operate it and maintain it, which building owners and developers get back by charging higher in rents... and instead of just the people that own cars paying for parking, all tenants pay higher rents, even if they don’t own cars,” said Williams-Derry

What spurred the study was new data released by King County where they collected data from more than 200 multifamily developments. From that sample the researchers chose 18 within the city of Seattle, and 5 sites located intermittently throughout the county. The sites varied broadly in location, size, monthly rent and other characteristics.

From the findings of the study, Williams-Derry, says that it actually reveals an opportunity for developers to recognize that parking areas could be leased to non-tenants in order to capitalize on all the vacate lots. He believes this would decouple the housing and parking market by lowering rent costs on average through developers recouping the cost of parking by individuals that are actually driving and using the parking lot. Moreover, new sites being built could plan for less parking construction.

“If you get the market working right the people that are parking will pay the full cost for parking instead of people with no cars subsidizing the lifestyles of other tenants. ...The people that buy into these buildings would have lower rents because there would be less parking to build and pay for. So you would have the potential to decouple the housing market from the parking market. “

He explained that one of the things you might see in Ballard are residents with no cars paying less in rent. Meanwhile, vacant parking would start to be occupied by tenants, freeing up street parking congestions.

He explained that what is happening in Seattle is a kind of accommodation that you don’t usually see in larger urban cities, and that its not uncommon for drivers to park there cars far from their residence.

“Its common in a place like New York City and other larger urban areas where if you want to drive you park your car somewhere else. Its just that here many zones are requiring at least some parking."

The impact of the study will take time, but Williams-Derry said there are some things we can do right now.

“Stop looking at cheap parking as a deal. Its something you're paying for in the hidden costs of higher rent -- cheap parking is more expensive than you realize. Free parking is never free.”

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