The Jobs’ garage.  Photo by michelleysbelly on Flickr.

Steve Jobs made history when he started Apple in his parents’ garage in Silicon Valley almost 40 years ago. He also broke the law by building computers in required parking spaces.

Jobs parents’ lived in California’s Santa Clara County. Like many suburbs, it requires every property to have its own off-street parking. The rules are enforced selectively, as they are in many places, and Jobs’ lawbreaking was ignored.

Steve Jobs found a use for the garage that was more productive than storing his parents’ car. But computer-building is hardly the only alternative use for parking spaces.  Getting rid of off-street parking requirements altogether would allow many other beneficial conversions.

The Santa Clara County zoning code, which applied to the Jobs home in 1976, requires houses to have two parking spaces.  One of them must have a roof.  The Jobs family, living in a home without a covered parking space, did not comply:

The provision and maintenance of off-street parking spaces as required by this chapter shall be a continuing obligation so long as the building or use that such spaces serve continues. It shall be a violation of the zoning ordinance to reduce or cause the reduction of the number of spaces below the number required by this chapter.

Like Montgomery County and the District, Santa Clara County only enforces its rules about parking at single-family homes when the house is first built. People routinely fill up their garages with lawnmowers, shop tools, and much else. Jim Lanz, Santa Clara County’s chief of code enforcement, cannot remember receiving a complaint about use of a garage for storage purposes in his 26 years with the county. 

But the building inspector springs into action when the space reserved for automobiles is used as a bedroom or living room. And don’t try to build a new apartment building without a garage. Suburbs often make people who don’t own cars pay for an underground parking space that costs $50,000 to build. Automobiles have a right to subsidized housing, people not so much.

The world is better off because Santa Clara County let Steve Jobs ignore its rules, but selective enforcement is not the proper remedy for bad laws. It’s far better to repeal minimum parking requirements altogether, and put the land and money now wasted on unneeded parking to better use.