Monday, October 8, 2012

Homes with Zero Parking and Reflections on the AARP-MIT AgeLab Roundtable

I spent Friday at the AARP-MIT Roundtable in Cambridge, MA - "Disruptive Demographics: Inventing the Future of Place & Space."  MIT's Joe Coughlin led a great conversation between several companies working in the 50+ space.  The day-long session even included an exercise break from the people at Silver Sneakers, not to mention a great view from the top of the Hyatt.

One major highlight for me was the video of MIT's AGNES suit in action, filmed by one of the retail chains that use the suit to ensure that shelf height, aisle width, and other features work for people of all ages.  I was promised a test run at a future point - I love any opportunity to better understand the challenges that some people are facing.

One concept that kept coming up throughout the day was that we need to begin preparing now, but consumer demand that focuses on current conditions (not long-term benefits), a development / housing industry that is used to the old ways of building homes and communities, and less-than-ideal policies and zoning in many places all conspire to keep us unprepared for the aging of the population. 

Larry Gotlieb of KB Home had several policy thoughts, including his hope that minimum parking requirements would disappear, particularly for 55+ housing.  Coincidentally, I've been thinking about the issues that Portland, Oregon is having with its regulations that allow some apartments to be built with no parking.  

Building homes or apartments with zero parking - I'm sure that it sounds far-fetched for many of you (Take the unscientific poll on and let me know what you think).  I hear from some disability advocates that parking gives them freedom - they argue that easy access to driving gives them the ability to even out some of the other access limitations that they face.  The hopeful community planner side of me says that housing near transit might not need parking - this type of design could be used to encourage transit use and walking (if the neighborhood around the apartment building includes adequate transit and walking options).  That argument relies on the logic that these buildings are built with the idea of limiting everyone's access to automobiles, but assumes wider access opportunities through other means.  Put simply, if the other pieces of the community work, the lack of a car would not be a great limitation and people with physical disabilities would not have any greater access limitation than others.

For those who cannot drive or cannot afford to drive, a well-designed building in a neighborhood with a top-quality transit system, mixed use development and complete streets would mean that everyone could get around. The side of me that's concerned with housing affordability realizes that unnecessary parking spaces can lead to higher housing costs, and the land savings from reducing parking could mean lower rents per square foot of apartment space. In an urban neighborhood with quality transportation alternatives (including walking) it may be a good idea (See some of the lessons learned in our report "Preserving Affordability and Access in Livable Communities" about these topics).

These policies need to be thought out to ensure that neighbors aren't impacted as well - I imagine that the Portland homeowners who have cars belonging residents of the "zero-parking" apartments on the streets in front of their houses are not happy. Additionally, zero-parking homes and apartments will have a limited amount of interest for the foreseeable future - it's a very different concept and way of life than most people are used to. That being said, Gotlieb has a point - older households are smaller, and there will be people who do not want to drive, cannot afford to drive, or are unable to drive.  Additionally, some of the Portland apartments are targeted at younger adults who might not ever want a car.  We should have a range of housing options to address those needs and preferences.  The trick to true housing choice is that is not just the design of the house or building that matters, but the design of the neighborhood and community as well.

There are several variables here and no easy answers, but well thought-out legislation and zoning that takes into account all of these factors is probably a good first step.  This concept would certainly not work everywhere, but poor planning and a lack of consideration for the design and conditions of the neighborhood and transportation system will guarantee that it will not work anywhere.

Thoughts? Please share them below, on or @drurbanpolicy

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