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A Green Solution to Oakland's Housing Crisis

If the city stopped building giant parking garages, it could become a leader in sustainable development — and create more affordable housing in the process.



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Using that projection, Cheng from TransForm last year did a rough calculation estimating the amount of new parking the housing developments could bring to Oakland if the city's requirements and development parking trends stayed the same. By 2040, she found, Oakland could have more than 64,000 new off-street parking spaces — costing developers a total of $2.5 billion.

But TransForm's data on the high vacancy rates in existing Oakland apartment building lots and garages suggests that a significant portion of that $2.5 billion would be wasted on empty spots. As part of its efforts to push developers to reduce their parking, TransForm has published a parking database that currently includes statistics from nearly seventy Bay Area buildings. Across fourteen Oakland buildings that agreed to provide data and grant access to TransForm (which did interviews and nighttime visits to garages), an average of 27 percent of parking spaces were unused. That correlates to roughly 133,200 square feet of wasted space and unnecessary expenditures of $22 million in construction costs. Other Oakland apartment buildings likely have significantly higher parking vacancy rates, given that many of the database participants have worked with TransForm and have relatively more progressive plans (meaning fewer than one space per unit).

The city's own parking surveys revealed similar findings. In 2013, data from seven apartment buildings — in the Jack London and Fruitvale districts and along Telegraph Avenue — found that an average of 31 percent of on-site spaces were unoccupied.

Using estimates from a 2013 Seattle study on the hidden fees landlords implement to regain losses for unused parking, Cheng estimated that tenants in the 51,000 new units to be built in Oakland in the next two decades could face a total of $144 million in additional rent costs each year solely to subsidize excess car parking.

In 2008, TransForm launched its GreenTRIP program, which encourages greener building designs with less parking. Similar to the US Green Building Council's process of awarding sustainable buildings with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications, GreenTRIP recognizes forward-thinking residential parking strategies based on rigorous criteria. The specific standards differ by location — with stricter metrics in San Francisco than Petaluma, for example — but in downtown Oakland, projects can earn GreenTRIP certification if they do not go above 0.75 parking spaces per unit, and if the projected vehicle miles traveled per day per household does not exceed 25 miles. The average Bay Area household drives 50 miles per day.

Additionally, projects must adopt specific "traffic reduction strategies," such as providing free annual memberships to car-share services (such as ZipCar or City CarShare) and free or discounted public transit passes.

Most GreenTRIP buildings also offer what is called "unbundled parking," a pricing policy that separates the cost of parking from the rent or home purchase price. That means residents who want a parking spot have to pay extra for it while those who don't own cars get more affordable units. As opposed to the conventional system — in which parking is automatically included in rent and thus all residents subsidize the costs of the on-site garage and are incentivized to own a car — unbundled parking can go a long way toward encouraging people to live car-free.

"The concept is let's house people and [build] places for people rather than provide free housing for cars," said Cheng.

GreenTRIP staffers also help developers design their traffic reduction strategies and navigate the process of getting city approvals — in some cases by providing compelling evidence of the environmental and social benefits of reduced parking and transit perks. After five years, GreenTRIP has gathered a lot of data to make a convincing case. Across eighteen projects that have earned GreenTRIP certification, TransForm estimates that residents in these buildings cumulatively drive 85,500 fewer miles per day than the state average and release 15,000 fewer tons of carbon dioxide per year.

At 4700 Telegraph, the Nautilus Group project in Temescal and GreenTRIP's first certification in Oakland, TransForm staffers estimate that residents will drive fifteen miles per day per unit — 70 percent lower than the Bay Area average, and thus will produce 62 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the regional standard.

TransForm has also collected anecdotal evidence illustrating the clear connection between greener parking plans and affordable housing. In the Riviera Family Apartments, a GreenTRIP-certified affordable housing project located a short walk from the Walnut Creek BART station, a reduction in parking allowed for the construction of substantially more affordable units. Under the local parking code requirements, the nonprofit developer, Resources for Community Development, would have been forced to build 79 parking spaces for only 36 affordable homes.

But following GreenTRIP guidelines, the developer gained approval for a proposal that decreased the parking to 50 spaces and increased the housing to 58 homes. That meant a 61 percent increase in the number of affordable units — a greener and more equitable plan that was financially feasible because the developer was able to significantly reduce parking construction costs.

Garden Village, a 77-unit Nautilus Group project near UC Berkeley, features no on-site parking. Instead, Nautilus provided transit passes, car-share memberships, extensive bike parking, a cycling fix-it station, grocery carts for every unit (making shopping much easier), and other creative amenities that support alternative transit. That project also featured 10 percent affordable units. Laub, the company's vice president, said that if Nautilus were forced to build on-site parking for the project (which was also GreenTRIP-certified), it could not have built any affordable housing.

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