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Give renters a break: Limit overnight parking ban

UPDATED, Aug. 21: The following opinion/reportage was written by Laura Kiesel, an Arlington-based freelance writer whose articles and op-eds have appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Politico and Salon. She is a coordinator for the Tenants for a Livable Arlington.

Earlier this spring, I became part of a nascent grass-roots group of renters, homeowners and small-business owners in town that is now known as the Tenants for a Livable Arlington, with a mission to advocate for tenants in the town when it comes to escalating rental costs, code violations and discriminatory policies.

What started as a handful of us meeting in our founder’s (John Sanbonmatsu’s) living room has since evolved in just a few months to large biweekly meetings of 20 or more at the Robbins Library and a mailing list serving about 50 people. As our membership has increased, one issue that has been repeatedly brought up, is Arlington’s overnight parking ban. In particular, it seems the ban has been leveraged by some select property owners of large complexes to propose exorbitant parking fees.

Right away, the frustration of these new members felt familiar to me.

When I was first looking to move to Arlington in late spring 2012, I looked at a one-bedroom unit available in East Arlington advertised as having parking. Yet, when I looked at the place, it turned out there was not any off-street parking available and would not be for several months, until the landlord repaved the lot behind the building to create more spaces.

Park on the street, she was told

When I asked what I should do between now and then should I sign the lease, the agent urged me to park on the street, neglecting to mention that there was an overnight parking ban. However, as someone who frequented Arlington, I knew about the ban and said I wasn’t comfortable with the prospect of getting ticketed repeatedly.

She then offered that the landlord had a relationship with the manager of the church across the street and I could park there until the lot was repaved. I left a check for a down payment to hold the place, but refused to sign the lease until I could get something in writing by the church guaranteeing me a space. But it was not forthcoming, and after a week of evasions by the rental agency and not finding another viable rental option within my budget, I went to the church to inquire.

I discovered no such agreement had existed. I immediately returned to the rental agency and demanded the landlord either needed to repave the lot to create a parking spot for me before my move-in date or they needed to return my check so I could look elsewhere. The landlord agreed to the lot repaving, but said he would have to raise the rent $50 per month from the originally proposed rate for the inconvenience of doing something he was planning to do anyway. Running out of time and options (my move out date at my current place was only two weeks away), I consented to the increase, even though it constrained my already tight budget.

Four years later, when my partner moved to Arlington to be closer to me and help me out as my health deteriorated due to the onset of a progressive chronic illness, he came across a similar situation. Again, going through the same rental agency, he looked at a one-bedroom unit in a building a block over from mine that was advertised as having off-street parking. Yet, after he already agreed to take the place and went in to sign the lease and looked more closely at the language describing parking, he realized it was not guaranteed.

Not only that, he was expected to put down a not-insignificant depositon a remote control for the gate to the parking lot that he would discover upon moving in had not been functional in years (they told him it had only broken recently and would be fixed soon; two years later it still has not been).

Scale of deceptive practices

I mention all of this to reveal the scale of some of the deceptive practices that prospective tenants are vulnerable to when it comes to securing a rental with off-street parking in Arlington, and the undue burdens placed on us to get at the truth when trying to find viable alternatives in regards to adequate parking.

Many members of our tenants' group who live in the same large building complex that houses hundreds of renters in the town were recently alerted by the property manager to a forthcoming $100 monthly parking fee. This fee was proposed to many who were still within their current lease terms, and on top of a new fee deposit for a remote to a parking gate that has yet to be installed. This will inevitably further disenfranchise those who are already paying largely disproportionate amounts of their monthly income toward rent, potentially forcing them to leave Arlington. And it will punish those who are squeezed out, regardless of what they can or are willing to pay, as there are limited spaces and more renters with cars than the lot can hold.

Considering this, the problem with the overnight parking ban is that in these cases, it functions as a discriminatory policy toward renters, as it is seemingly being exploited by some properties to price gouge their tenants or deceive them about off-street parking availability in the first place before moving in. Even those who are not targeted by deceptive practices or price gouging may find themselves forced to move out of Arlington or to overlook it as an option to relocate to because of the lack of affordable and legal parking options. That is a shame, because it then becomes an explicit impediment to Arlington maintaining and advancing the diversity goals it sets in its own housing plans.

As a general population, those who rent are much more likely to be part of a marginalized demographic than their home-owning counterparts. As noted by Pew Research in 2017, 66.1 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of African-Americans rent compared to only 34.4 percent of whites. Single people are also much more likely to be renters, especially single-parent households (and particularly, those headed by single mothers).

Who the renters are

Overall, women are generally more likely to be renters as compared to men, while also being more vulnerable to the gender wage gap and therefore tend to pay much higher percentages of their incomes on rent than men (some studies have recently ranked the Boston metro area as the single least-affordable rental market for single women in the nation). And it is no secret that despite an influx of higher income families into the rental market in recent years in the U.S. -- which in turn has directly contributed to the stark increase in rental rates across the board -- renters are still more likely to be lower income on the whole than homeowners. As such, policies that disproportionately affect renters, also carry racial, gender-based and class-based implications -- and that includes the overnight parking ban in Arlington.

As many longtime residents of Arlington may recall, the question of overturning the overnight parking ban came up in a nonbinding ballot question in 2013 and was voted down. Some note that a significant majority rejected it and conclude that reflects the will of the populace.

However, a closer exploration offers a more nuanced explanation. While the majority agreed with keeping the ban in place, over one-third of participating voters (36 percent) favored its reversal -- an estimate that closely (though perhaps only coincidentally) reflects the homeowner-to-renter ratio in the town at the time of the vote. Also, several of the precincts -- specifically, 4, 9 and 20 -- received well above 40 percent of votes in favor of reversing the ban-- a threshold that usually indicates a potential shift in public opinion and a vulnerability to a higher margin of error if voting participation was higher.

This is worth mentioning, because Arlington elections tend to have notoriously low voter turnouts -- for instance, less than 9 percent in 2017. [Note that the average turnout in a town election between 2000 and 2018 is 22 percent; see chart here >> ] Of those who turn out, they are probably more likely to be those who have lived here longer and are familiar with the town political system (i.e., homeowners) -- or even already an active part of the town government.

Renters struggling to make ends meet financially are less privileged in terms of accessing the polls in the first place. Despite this, renters remain an important part of the town. According to the most recent census data available online through the town, they comprised 40.2 percent of Arlington households in 2011.

A significant minority

And if demographic growth trends have continued in the direction that recent decades have indicated, that percentage is likely now closer to 42 to 44 percent (or more) in 2018. Renters may be a minority, but they are a significant minority and exponentially growing. Our rent helps fund property taxes, we support local businesses with our patronage and those who own automobiles pay excise taxes, which offer vital revenue to the town that funds crucial sectors and services (much of which we do not directly benefit from).

Unfortunately, renters are vastly underrepresented in town government – the comprise only about one-quarter or less of Town Meeting, and all Select Board members are homeowners. As such, our perspectives or challenges may be unwittingly overlooked in local legislative decisions.

A lot has changed in the demographics of the town since 2013, and correspondingly, many local perceptions of social issues have also progressed. For instance, I initially attempted to begin a discourse about banning plastic bags at checkout counters with many town committees and representatives in early 2013, and it was a nonstarter. Yet by spring 2017, a bylaw I worked on with several people in Town Meeting accomplished just that and passed by an overwhelming majority of 188 - 21 and was also unanimously approved by the Select Board.

Since 2010, guidelines for visitor parking on the street have become more stringent, and the Arlington Police Department has further curtailed the number of nights one could gain an exception to the ban, to only 14 nights a year. Application is online-only and in advance, which disenfranchises those who cannot afford internet service. Additionally, anecdotal reporting in the tenants' group suggests ticketing those who violate the ban has become much more common in the past couple of years. Given this, it is reasonable to suspect that mindsets may have evolved regarding the overnight parking ban more than many of us realize.

Consider more inclusive parking policy

Thus, I implore the Select Board to consider a genuinely inclusive municipal parking policy. In particular, I hope it will consider more lenient exemption-based alternatives to the current overnight parking ban that will enable those who cannot access or afford adequate off-street parking an on-street or publicly available option that will help protect the vulnerable among us from unscrupulous practices and exploitation. Such a system could also charge a nominal annual fee for a parking sticker that could actually increase revenue for the town and offset projected costs of enforcement.

It is time Arlington comes to realize that it is also a town of renters, and in turn, work more actively to protect our rights on this and other issues. In doing so, it will be working toward the advancement of the town as the progressive, diverse and inclusive community it prides itself in trying to be. 

This was published Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018, and updated Aug. 21, to change the headline, which originally "Overturn overnight parking ban." The publisher decided it did not accurately reflect the thrust of the column.

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