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Most zoning code changes are esoteric, relatively minor, and don’t elicit much public interest. Just the phrase “zoning code changes” is probably making your eyelids heavy. But this year was a little different. In late June, Denver City Council approved a major change to the city’s affordable housing zoning code by reducing the minimum parking requirements. More than 70 nonprofits and businesses expressed support for the change, as did the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, Division of Housing. The bundle passed unanimously. And it’s expected to have some major, positive implications for affordable housing in the city.
But, first, let’s back up and explain why parking is eliciting so much excitement.
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The previous parking code hadn’t been updated in more than a decade and based its affordable housing parking requirements on where the building was located—so, 0.25 parking spots per unit along the Colfax corridor, and up to 1.25 per unit elsewhere. However, individuals living in these housing units earn between zero and 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), and are much less likely to own cars. Around 61 percent of low-income households do not have a vehicle, according to RTD research. (For reference: A two-person household making 60 percent AMI in Denver is earning about $48,000 per year.)
In a December 2020 study by RTD of 86 station-area developments, researchers found that market-rate properties offer 40 percent more parking than residents use, but income-restricted properties are even more problematic: They have 50 percent more parking than residents use. Five to 15 percent additional parking is “considered optimal parking management,” per the report.
The problem isn’t the empty asphalt spaces themselves. It’s what they represent: wasted money. Which is particularly troublesome when it comes to affordable housing, an industry that already operates on slim margins. Experts say parking is one of the most significant barriers to affordable housing projects both locally and across the country, sidelining or completely halting in-the-works projects because developers couldn’t make the zoning-required parking work.
“For too long, I’ve seen parking kill good projects, and we need more affordable housing in this town and this region,” says John Hersey, a parking consultant and the lead researcher and author of the RTD study. “It’s getting more expensive to live here every day, and parking is an expense that’s truly prohibiting, really killing these projects.”
RTD’s report was bolstered by a second study, released in February by Shopworks Architecture, a Denver-based firm that focuses on affordable housing projects, and Fox Tuttle Transportation Group, a transportation planning and engineering company in Denver. The audit of affordable (for people earning 30 to 60 percent AMI) and permanent supportive housing (zero to 30 percent AMI) properties found that, in general, Denver’s zoning code required 5.5 times more parking than was needed. “I would love for any decision-makers or staff members or other consultants to see that we need to build these projects to actually serve the folks who are wanting and needing to be in these homes,” says Cassie Slade, principal and part-owner of Fox Tuttle. “The data drives better decisions to really overcome our entire community’s problem of not having enough affordable housing.”
Colorado’s affordable housing shortage is old news, but the problem has only become more pronounced as a result of the pandemic. In March, new data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition and Colorado Coalition for the Homeless found that Colorado is among the top 10 states with the least affordable and available housing units. Parking has played a role: The average parking space costs between $20,000 and $30,000 to construct and maintain. The Shopworks/Fox Tuttle study valued the cost of unused parking at $9,284,000—the equivalent cost to build an entire 40-unit affordable housing property.
“Asphalt isn’t beautiful. It doesn’t make us joyful. It’s just frankly a waste of money when there’s so many more things that money could go to,” says Laura Rossbert, Shopworks’ chief operating officer. In the Shopworks/Fox Tuttle report, she summarizes it more bluntly: “We built parking when we could have housed people.”
These two studies localized pre-existing national data that showed similar overparking issues—and coincided with some zoning changes the city was already considering. “We know there are a large majority of affordable housing projects that never even make it into the door of the city review, and that is because our prior code requirements on parking were just so high that the use of the land or the cost to construct those parking spaces that were being required couldn’t justify the needs,” says Analiese Hock, principal city planner with Denver Community Planning and Development. Among other things, the just-updated code lowers the “affordable housing alternative minimum parking ratio” for affordable housing projects in any district to 0.1, or one spot for every 10 units. It also upped the applicable AMI from 40 percent to 60 percent to encompass more housing.
“It allows a lot of opportunities,” Slade says of the change. “All of a sudden, you can reallocate that money and/or space to other things lower-income folks need to have self-worth and to build their lives again and to have shelter.”
The change is having an immediate impact: Charity’s House Apartments, a supportive housing complex in Five Points that Shopworks is involved with and had been halted for at least six months due to parking issues, is now able to break ground.
Hersey and others hope the changes to metro Denver’s zoning code will influence other municipalities to research their own parking requirements and utilization and pass “context-sensitive” reforms. “The research alone isn’t enough,” Hersey notes. “It has to be followed up with practice.”