Boston city councilors Wednesday delayed a vote to eliminate off-street parking requirements for affordable housing projects, putting off a change housing advocates say would make it easier to build critical new units.
Councilors Kenzie Bok and Matt O’Malley proposed the zoning code amendment in May, alleging opponents of affordable housing developments were using parking requirements as a cudgel to block much-needed housing inventory.
“We’ve seen how parking minimums have been used as a tool to oppose low-income housing in our city,” Boston At-Large City Councilor Julia Mejia said during a virtual Committee on Government Operations hearing about the amendment Tuesday. “The goal of this ordinance is to eliminate unnecessary roadblocks.”
The order would amend a footnote in Boston's zoning code that allows low-income housing with at least 60% affordable units to be built without off-street parking. Bok said during Tuesday’s hearing she would present a favorable recommendation by the committee on the order.
City staff must still decide which zoning districts would be affected by the order before the committee brings a vote before the city council at an undetermined date, Bok said Wednesday.
The proposed amendment cites three affordable housing projects as examples of developments halted by parking-related objections: 3377 and 3371 Washington St. in Jamaica Plain and 37 Wales St. in Mattapan. The Jamaica Plain projects, totaling 240 units, are fully affordable housing buildings meant for homeless and senior citizens.
A nearby landlord and brewery owner jointly filed complaints against both projects in the past year, claiming city-granted parking relief would harm their business operations. One of the suits was settled in May; a second remains in Suffolk Superior Court. Some city councilors, including Committee On Government Operations Chair Lydia Edwards, expressed hesitation over the order at a May meeting, StreetsblogMass reported.
“I absolutely want to prioritize housing over parking,” Edwards said then. “But I’m not going to ignore the elephant in the room. There are a lot of people in this city that aren’t convinced of that, and absolutely think that parking should be prioritized.”
Edwards was not present at the committee meeting Tuesday, didn’t comment on the order Wednesday and deferred to Bok to present a report on the hearing before city councilors.
Civic organization leaders and three Boston residents gave charged testimonies in support of the order during Tuesday’s virtual hearing, while no speakers came forth against the proposed order. Supporters emphasized the need for housing and the damage done to affordable housing developers’ budgets.
“Land developers are able to file a lawsuit, tie up the city, cost nonprofit developers tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, while Boston is fighting homelessness,'' Mass Senior Action Council President Edna Pruce said. “Passing this amendment will save the city legal fees, allow the type of housing needed to be developed and put a stop to this type of land-grab tactics.”
The proposed order would also save affordable housing developers the cost of constructing required parking. Underground parking common at Boston’s urban apartments can cost developers upward of $25K per space, Fenway Community Development Corp. Director of Policy and Community Planning Richard Giordano said.
“Parking spaces actually mean you can do less affordable housing,” he said. “There is no way to ask for more subsidies so you can do the parking that might be required.”
Unused parking at 200 multifamily developments in Boston and 20 surrounding cities and towns equated to more than 41 acres of pavement and an estimated $94.5M in construction costs, a 2019 study by the state’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council found. Giordano and Transit Matters Chief Operating Officer and Development Director Jarred Johnson cited findings from the study before the council, including the report’s conclusion that parking oversupply in Metro Boston arose from “excessive” municipal parking requirements and counterproductive parking space at transit-oriented developments.
Between 2019 and August 2021, 1,163 income-restricted units across 46 Boston parcels met the threshold to fall under the proposed order, said Tim Davis, Boston Department of Neighborhood Development deputy director of policy development and research. The DND didn’t have available data on which parcels were granted parking requirement relief by the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal.
Livable Streets Alliance Executive Director Stacy Thompson cited St. Paul, Minnesota, and Raleigh, North Carolina, as parking reform examples for Boston to follow. St. Paul in August eliminated parking minimums at real estate developments, while Raleigh in June voted to begin the process of eliminating parking requirements at new projects.
“This is a very modest, tangible step compared to what other major metros are doing across the country,” Thompson said.
Mejia, among the loudest supporters of the order during Tuesday’s hearing, raised what one later speaker called a grim question that other respondents couldn’t answer.
“Once this ordinance passes, what is the next tool they’re going to use to oppose dense affordable housing? Mejia said. “How are we thinking one step ahead of the people who are opposing housing for low-income communities?”