Connecting the Housing and Transportation Conversations to Create Livable Communities

By Ruben Duran and Michael Maurer, Best Best & Krieger LLP

California Gov. Gavin Newsom sent a strong warning to cities and counties early this year: Meet your state housing goals or forfeit your Senate Bill 1, or “Gas Tax,” road repair dollars.

“Housing is transportation, and transportation is housing,” he said when announcing his budget plans in January. “If you’re not hitting your [housing] goals, I don’t know why you get the [transportation] money.”

The plan to withhold state transportation dollars from communities and link SB 1 funding to a compliance with housing, zoning and entitlements to meet the State’s housing goals didn’t make the final budget.

It did, however, demonstrate just how closely housing and transportation are connected in the mind of the Governor, and perhaps others in Sacramento.

It’s this intersection of housing and transportation that presents an opportunity for local governments to embrace innovative technologies and partnerships to meet the growing needs of their communities.

In part one of this series, we looked at California’s housing crisis, explored the recent trends in State housing legislation and opened up the conversation about how local governments can take a community approach to find housing solutions that best fit their local resources, environment and needs.

This second installment takes a deeper look at how communities throughout the State (and across the nation) are addressing the complexities of density, land use and transportation on a local level.

Building Upward

Since the ’70s, Oregon has set tight land-use controls to protect farmlands from urban sprawl.

In its latest push to spur urban development, the state eliminated single-family zoning. To increase housing availability, parcels that were once reserved for single-family homes can now be used for multi-family duplex, triplex, fourplex and “cottage cluster” developments in cities with more than 25,000 residents.

Local governments can still regulate siting and design (so long as the intent of the legislation isn’t discouraged) and will have to adopt new land-use ordinances or amend comprehensive plans. To aid this, the legislation’s drafters are developing a model for how communities can implement changes locally.

Similar residential “upzoning” policies are being implemented nationwide to head off housing shortages.

Minneapolis passed ambitious zoning guidelines last year that upzone nearly the entire city. Seattle — a startup rich city with the third largest homeless population in the country — loosened its zoning laws in March to allow denser construction in 27 transit-oriented urban areas and required developers to integrate affordable housing. Austin’s City Council also recently approved an ordinance allowing more units on single-family zoned sites, so long as a certain percentage of development is affordable.

Meanwhile, a similar measure in California (Senate Bill 50) is stuck in limbo until 2020.

The conversation is also prevalent on the presidential campaign trail, where several Democratic candidates have proposed policies to overhaul restrictive zoning codes. President Trump recently signed an executive order that forms a commission to examine restrictive zoning and building regulations.

And, even as legislators push policies aimed at stimulating urban growth, rural communities also continue to grow.

The spatial distribution in Southern California’s planned capacity for new housing is particularly skewed toward inland and rural regions and counties that are already experiencing large amounts of growth.

With growth comes longer commute times and added stress on existing roadways and modes of transit.

The conversation for planners has long centered on the first and last 50 feet of a person’s commute. From an equity standpoint, this is still a vital piece of the transportation discussion. But today’s discussion needs to be expanded like our communities, to consider the first and last five or even 50 miles of a residents’ commute in some communities.

While emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles and shared rides, as well as expanded bus rapid transit and commuter rail service can help alleviate congestion, big questions remain: How can you incentivize people to get out of their cars to utilize new transit? How do you ensure the mode of transportation is safe, reliable and efficient? How could an added bus lane or rail line impact congestion? And how will it all be paid for?

Expanding Public Transit, Building Nearby

The San Diego City Council recently approved two development plans in Pacific Beach that call for 9,000 homes to be built adjacent to future trolley stations along Interstate 5.

The City’s current plan only allows for another 1,200 housing units in the area. But with a more than $2 billion, 11-mile extension of San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s Blue Line Trolley that will add nine new stops set to come online in 2021, the City is looking to meet its housing needs and boost ridership.

City staffers recommended reducing one of the project’s major thoroughfares down to three lanes from four, to increase the size and buffer zones for bike lanes — but traffic congestion concerns prevailed.

The plan was amended, though, to require that 15 percent of the homes be designated as affordable for moderate-income households, or those earning less than the area’s median income of $86,300 for a family of four.

In Phoenix residents recently voted to continue financing the City’s long-planned light-rail extension. The ballot measure, Proposition 105, required the City to divert funding for new light rail extensions to other transportation-specific projects. Phoenix’s share of funds allocated for light-rail expansions comes from a $31.5 billion, 35-year transportation plan funded by a sales tax increase that voters approved in 2015.

Opponents of the expansion argued the system was too costly and that cutting down the Central Avenue thoroughfare from two vehicle lanes in each direction to one would negatively impact their community.

Similar tensions between transit and roads are playing out in communities across the nation.

Solving these challenges is not easy, and solutions aren’t solely reserved for individual cities, or even metropolitan areas. They extend into regional corridors — or megaregions — with many stakeholders.

A move toward greater regional collaboration and public-private partnerships, that bring innovative models, financing and alliances to the table, could help communities reimagine the way they house and move people, build new infrastructure and support new jobs.

Delve further into the discussion with Best Best & Krieger LLP’s three-part webinar series, “Innovating Livability for Communities,” which explores how communities across the nation are implementing innovative housing and transportation policies that can be used as a model at the national and local level.

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Ruben Duran is a partner in the Los Angeles and Ontario offices of Best Best & Krieger LLP. He is Board Counsel to the Southern California Association of Government’s (SCAG) governing body, the Regional Council, and he represents cities, school districts, public health plans and special districts throughout California on open government, transparency and complex conflicts of interest matters as well as elections law, land use, planning and cannabis issues. He can be reached at

Michael J. Maurer, a partner in Best Best & Krieger LLP’s Municipal Law practice group, advises a range of public agencies in the areas of land use, open government, public infrastructure and construction laws. He serves as city attorney for the cities of La Habra Heights and San Jacinto as well as assistant city attorney for Avalon and Arcadia. He can be reached at