By Ryan Packer
Democrats in Olympia are making good on their pledge to remove local regulatory barriers to housing by proposing bills that would require cities and towns to permit diverse types of new housing. Many of these bills are being passed over the objections of local elected officials, who are wary of changes in state law that take away their authority to maintain status-quo land use policies.
But while lawmakers seem willing to go against the recommendations of some cities when it comes to density limits, they seem more hesitant about getting rid of local parking requirements. Parking requirements add costs to new housing—garages aren’t cheap to build—and are often unnecessary as cities become denser and easier to navigate without a car. Cities across Washington currently require a certain number of parking spaces for each new housing unit they permit, though Seattle has removed that requirement for buildings close to transit lines.
Many of the bills proposed this session remove or reduce minimum parking requirements in order to reduce construction costs. But those provisions are now proving to be a sticking point for both parties.
Rep. Julia Reed (D-36, Seattle) is leading the charge to eliminate parking minimums, particularly in areas that are close to transit. “A lot of these parking minimum laws that are in place from cities and counties, they were created a while ago and they’re not really revisited that often,” Reed said. “It’s not tied to how people really move around that neighborhood, it’s tied to an assumption that parking is needed.” Reed cited the high cost of parking spaces in new buildings: $50,000 or more per spot.
Reed’s House Bill 1351 would prohibit cities from requiring parking in new buildings within a half-mile of frequent transit lines, and within a quarter-mile of half-hourly bus service. But by the time that bill passed the house local government committee this week, the restriction only applied to areas within a quarter-mile of any level of transit service. And even that major change wasn’t enough to get any Republicans in the committee to vote for it, in a year when Democrats are counting on some Republican votes to get their housing votes across the finish line.
The state senate is where that support might matter the most. When the bill’s senate counterpart received a hearing earlier this month, it was a Democrat, Sen Claudia Kauffman (D-47, Kent), who expressed concerns with how this would impact downtown Kent, where street parking is generally free. “If you start reducing [required parking] because of the transit center, it’s going to reduce people’s ability to have their car. … For me, this doesn’t work within the transit system that we have,” Kauffman said. “In my area this just wouldn’t work.”
Many of this year’s senate housing bills would also reduce or remove parking minimums. Senator Marko Liias’ (D-21, Edmonds) Senate Bill 5466 would require cities to allow substantially denser developments around transit stations, and would ban parking minimums within three-quarters of a mile of any major transit stop.
“It doesn’t make sense, when we’re saying [that] in a transit zone, the way we want people to move is by transit, to also require and guarantee that you can get to those destinations by car,” Liias said at the bill’s first public hearing. “Overlaying the two creates really incompatible and inefficient land uses. … When we require parking minimums, that’s when we get empty parking lots right next to light rail stations.”
Under the new version of the bills allowing more apartments near transit, a potential fourplex just outside a transit corridor would have to include four parking spaces, which might push a homeowner or developer to consider a different type of building altogether—like a single-family home.
Housing advocates are in broad agreement that it’s essential to eliminate parking minimums as part of this year’s housing bills. “If the bill doesn’t do that, local parking mandates will force developers to build more parking than communities need, and that excess parking will undermine the state’s goals to create transit-oriented communities that give residents good alternatives to cars,” Dan Bertolet of the Sightline Institute, the Seattle-based think tank, testified at a committee hearing on SB 5466 this week. A 2021 paper by a researcher at Santa Clara University showed that when Seattle reduced required parking near transit in 2012, developers built 40 percent fewer parking spaces, translating to around 18,000 fewer stalls and over half a billion dollars in reduced housing costs.
Though it’s still early, efforts to weaken parking restrictions are already becoming a trend. This week, the house and senate housing committees approved both House Bill 1110 and its counterpart Senate Bill 5190, which require cities inside the Seattle and Spokane metro areas to allow fourplexes on all residential lots, and sixplexes close to transit. But both chambers did so only after approving a new version that allows cities to require at least one parking spot for each housing unit for areas away from transit, when the previous version only allowed them to require one spot per lot. That means a potential fourplex just outside a transit corridor would have to include four parking spaces, which might push a homeowner or developer to consider a different type of building altogether—like a single-family home.
Even as that bill passed its senate committee with his vote, one of its Republican sponsors, Sen. John Braun (R-20, Centralia), said he isn’t ready to vote “yes” when it gets to the Senate floor, suggesting there’s more bartering ahead on the Senate. A majority of Republicans in both chambers oppose the bills in the name of maintaining local control—as opposed to supporting them based on developers’ private property rights, a traditional conservative position.
With the proposals to eliminate parking minimums getting the most vocal pushback from local leaders, and many lawmakers apparently listening to those concerns, these urbanist provisions might be the first casualties as deadlines approach and leaders in both chambers look to create compromises to reach a deal.