Innovative Housing Policies for Commercial Parking Converted to Infill Housing


Author: Eric Bjornson and Josh Jorgensen


For multiple reasons, Tacoma is separated into two regional growth Centers; Downtown Tacoma , and the Tacoma Mall Area. Currently the City of Tacoma is working to finalize Tacoma Mall Subarea plan and has the opportunity to remedy barriers to creating more housing by: reducing the off street parking requirement, reducing the yard space requirement and cautiously reviewing the options for incentivizing or requiring inclusionary zoning.

As more people decide to move to Tacoma and a small proportion of housing units are being constructed in the city, Tacomans are predictably seeing housing prices increase at a staggering rate.  These rates will continue to increase rapidly unless the City removes barriers which will allow affordable housing to be built.  Quite simply, for sale housing prices are increasing in Tacoma because more people with increased sources of money are bidding against each other and renters are competing over a very limited supply to be “first in line” or “the most qualified”. Landlords of existing properties are benefitting from this increase in demand, however, these increased rents are still not high enough to cover the construction prices necessary to build new housing in many areas of Tacoma, including the Tacoma Mall Area.

In order to reduce construction costs, a new plan calls for a renewed discussion around parking and spacial regulations in Tacoma’s most over-parked mixed use center as well as an important exploration into effective tools to holistically address affordable housing.

Housing Affordability

Affordable housing is discussed in a few ways in Tacoma. Units can be “unaffordable to build.” This may be used by many types of housing providers, both public and private.

A residential dwelling is considered affordable for the household if the housing costs to live there are less than 30-35% of total gross household income. In Tacoma, this calculation may still result in a rent shock because of how “cheap” physically attractive and well located housing has been for so long. Of course for some low income residents, housing will never be affordable enough for them to budget adequately for the costs of other necessities. This is a reminder once again of the lagging benefits of minimum wage.

Affordable housing providers serving households below the area median income level is created in a number of ways such as:

Naturally occurring affordable housing is unsubsidized housing targeting lower income residents. This may be found in older buildings which have aged over time and are less desirable to people earning higher incomes. Alternatively is in area where the cost of land is inexpensive.

Public or private funds are used to subsidize the construction and maintenance of housing.

Incentivization tools such as Tacoma’s 12 year tax incentive to provide housing to lower income earners, which is increasingly being used as developers. Take note, these rents don’t target very low income residents.

All three of these ways are important and should be sought after to varying degrees based on the specific market circumstances. In an area like the Tacoma Mall where little new construction is occurring, it doesn’t make sense to stifle potential future development in this one location through inclusionary zoning as has been suggested. Instead inclusionary zoning should be considered in more appealing areas or across the city as a whole.  However, this conversation should be pursued understanding that competing jurisdictions may lure potential developers away through perceived savings of development costs.  Last, Tacoma has neglected to fund a housing trust in order to provide for funding.


Parking requirements should fit the specific context in which a building is constructed. In the Tacoma Mall Area parking regulations pose a huge barrier and increase both the market rate of housing as well as the cost for non-profits to construct subsidized affordable housing.  Lagging other cities, Tacoma has still failed to reform it’s 1950 era suburban parking requirement barrier which adds $25,000 to $50,000 to a residential unit, unless a narrow exception is made. In this context new development is surrounded by a sea of parking as well as close proximity to major transit hubs.  The off-street parking requirement also forces developers to build larger and more expensive units than they normally would in order to limit the amount of parking required. This reduces the number of units available. So long as Tacoma continues to force developers to build multi-story underground parking garages with each development, little or any affordable housing is going to be built.

Yard Space

While not as influential on increasing construction costs , the relatively newer yard space requirement seeks to impose a suburban landscape in a semi urban market. By requiring yard space for midrise apartments the number of apartments that can be constructed in a given space will be reduced and costs will be allocated to an amenity that residents may or may not use.


Tacoma is a beautiful place with people that have a variety of visions of livability and various abilities to afford housing.  Allowing for more housing to be built in a way that balances social sustainability with good urban form, will allow Tacoma to become a more inclusive and economically vibrant city. It is important that the desire to create a progressive indicator of support for affordable housing does not have the opposite effect in limiting the amount of total housing that can be built in order to relieve the pressure of increasing housing demand. Lastly, since housing is treated as a commodity to be invested in, the housing market should not be allowed to dictate the safety and stability of the places where people live. A concerted effort must be made by Tacoma’s leaders and those of other cities to protect resident rights, and support the creation of safe, attractive and stable housing choices.


Resources and Information

Costs to build subsidized housing and market rate housing prices

Seattle’s recent parking reforms

Selling off City Land for housing

Commercial shopping centers are often designed with too much parking

This leads to a variety of well documented negative externalities (automobile dependence, loss of social cohesion, big box retail underselling local businesses etc)

As the market changes and these shopping centers age there is an opportunity for infill residential and mixed use


Below grade parking $20,000-$50,000/stall


Mixed use center feasibility analysis 2015 –


  • 1 stall per residential unit
  • 5 stalls per 1000 ft of retail floor area


  • No parking required for buildings within 10 ft of the right of way
  • No parking required for first 3000sf of retail restaurant
  • Group/student/efficiency units get a reduction as well.


  • 25% reduction if located within 500ft of transit (50% if transit comes frequently)

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