Californians are finding it harder and harder to afford housing, leading to high levels of displacement and homelessness. While there is widespread consensus that a crisis exists, there is little agreement about what — or who — can solve the problem.
Governor Gavin Newsom made it clear during his election campaign that addressing California’s housing crisis would be a top priority of his administration. Newsom maintained that emphasis during the first months of his governorship, discussing the levers at his disposal for making housing more available and affordable for California residents. In a speech presenting his first proposed budget, Newsom suggested that certain transportation funds could be contingent on a community’s commitment to increasing the housing supply, an approach supported by his assertion that “to me, transportation is housing, housing is transportation.” While this phrase was intended to justify tying SB 1 gas tax revenue to housing quotas, it refers to a widely recognized linkage that increasingly is a crucial component of housing policy at state, regional, and local levels.
However, there is a more powerful — and more fundamental — connection between housing and transportation that policymakers must recognize in order to effectively address the crisis: both housing and transportation play a crucial role in the health of individuals, families, and communities.
The Housing Crisis and Health Equity
Where you live affects your health in numerous ways. Healthy housing means homes that are safe, stable, and affordable. Healthy transportation options mean that the residents of those healthy homes have convenient ways to access quality jobs, schools, health care, food, recreation, and support services. The US government agrees, explicitly identifying “safe housing” and “transportation options” as necessary to promote good health. Unfortunately, California’s housing affordability crisis has severely reduced access to healthy homes, particularly for extremely low-income renters.
Not surprisingly, the housing crisis also drives housing instability, which is especially harmful to the health of children. Additionally, many California families have had to move far away from job-rich city centers, leading to the rise of “super commuters” who spend 90 minutes or more getting to work. These long commutes are associated with a host of negative impacts on physical and mental health.
The realities of the unhealthy housing and transportation crisis conflict with California’s stated goal that “all Californians should have optimal health.”Following through on this value means ensuring that everyone has access to healthy housing and transportation and that no one is denied that access because of race, social position, or any other socially defined circumstance. This commitment to health equity requires policies that focus on the complex connections between homes and mobility. It also entails aiding those who face significant barriers to accessing healthy housing and transportation.
Who is responsible for addressing these threats to public health? State governments are granted broad police power to protect and promote the general welfare of their residents. But many states, including California, empower cities to make policy for the general welfare of their respective populations. This division of power makes sense in some circumstances, because local control is often the most effective way to address localized issues. In the case of housing, however, many local governments in California have failed to meet their responsibilities. To address this shortfall, politicians at the state level are proposing new solutions that rely on the link between housing and transportation policy.
A Healthy Look at Proposed Housing-Transportation Solutions
The proposal that spurred Newsom to declare that “transportation is housing” provides an opportunity to see how a health equity perspective could improve policymaking. In March 2019, Newsom stated that “beginning July 1, 2023, SB 1 Local Streets and Roads funds may be withheld from any jurisdiction that does not have a compliant housing element and has not zoned and entitled for its updated annual housing goals.” Even this rough proposal demonstrates that health equity considerations will be crucial as the Newsom administration builds out its intended implementation: Will the state consider the relative feasibility of developing in different jurisdictions when evaluating housing production performance? Will it look at affordable housing preservation and protection in addition to production? What metrics will it use to decide which jurisdictions are at risk of losing funding?
Newsom’s proposal fails to account for disparities in resources, market strength, and other socioeconomic circumstances among different jurisdictions. This omission could cause the state to withhold critical transportation dollars from already resource-poor areas, like rural communities in the Central Valley that are already struggling to meet current housing goals, in part due to an influx of families displaced from other housing markets.
Another state-level initiative linking housing and transportation is State Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 50, also known as the More HOMES Act of 2019, which would remove barriers to new developments near transit centers and in job centers in the hopes of increasing housing production, decreasing housing costs, and decreasing reliance on single-occupancy vehicles for travel. This proposed legislation is an updated version of Wiener’s SB 827, which failed in part due to concerns about increased gentrification and displacement of renters. The new legislation has already been amended to clear some political hurdles, but some concerns remain about its impact on low-income Californians.
SB 50 partially addresses the criticisms of SB 827 by creating exceptions for communities with high levels of poverty and racial segregation, described in the bill’s definition of “sensitive communities.” The narrow definition of these communities, however, excludes many neighborhoods that are either at risk of or currently experiencing displacement. The exception could be expanded by including other equity indicators and strengthening community consultation in the definition process. To allow for effective community input in the process, the bill should also extend the time for identifying eligible communities past its current deadline of July 2020. Finally, the exception creates a 5-year period for eligible communities to adopt alternative development plans but does not provide the support needed for an effective planning process. The bill would be stronger if it supplied communities with resources to develop and implement anti-displacement strategies. This approach would help reduce rather than exacerbate place-based health inequities.
Building a Healthy Future
The politics of linking housing and transportation is not a new phenomenon. In the 20th century, federal transportation policy paved the way for the destruction of urban, predominantly African American communities across the country, and local transit planning has repeatedly cut off already resource-poor neighborhoods from access to quality work and education. The legacy of these policy decisions can be seen in place-based inequities that make a person’s zip code a better predictor of health than their genetic code.
The challenge for policymakers today is not only to recognize that housing and transportation policies have implications for health equity but also to act on that recognition by creating policies that promote health equity by design. While there is no single approach that will accomplish an equitable distribution of health outcomes, state leaders who seek to strengthen the bond between housing and transportation must take steps to ensure that future policies prioritize the health of all individuals, families, and communities.
ChangeLab Solutions is proud to release A Blueprint for Changemakers: Achieving Health Equity Through Law & Policy. The Blueprint presents policy strategies and best practices to help policymakers, practitioners, planners, and communities improve health outcomes.
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Erik Calloway is a senior planner at ChangeLab Solutions who focuses on the links between the built environment and health. He conducts research, prepares strategies, and develops tools to help communities support healthy living and sustainability.
Zac Hale, JD, MPS, is a legal fellow who supports ChangeLab Solutions’ work across multiple areas, including healthy housing, water quality, and the built environment.