School districts build housing to attract teachers

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San Francisco Bay Area high school teacher Lisa Raskin moved out of a cramped apartment and into her own place this month, paying a deeply discounted $1,500 for a one-bedroom with expansive views that is within walking distance to work.

It was once an impossible dream in an exorbitantly priced region hostile to new housing. But her employer, a small school district just south of San Francisco, was the rare success story in the ongoing struggle to provide affordable housing and in May, it opened 122 apartments ranging from one to three bedrooms for teachers and staff.

“I have a sense of community, which I think is more valuable than anything else,” said Raskin, 41, a San Francisco native for whom teaching is a second career. “More districts really need to consider this model. I think it shows educators that they value them as educators.”

The Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County on the north end of Silicon Valley is among just a handful of places in the country that has educator housing. But with a national teacher shortage and rapidly rising rents, the working class district with excess land could serve as a harbinger as schools across the U.S. seek to attract and retain educators.

“We’ve had significant turnover of staff over the years. 25% on an annual basis. And this is a way for us to be able to retain and recruit both teachers and staff,” said Andrew Lie, a school board trustee.

There are other examples of teacher-specific housing in the country, although not all are built on district-owned land. The American Federation of Teachers, for example, recently toasted the opening of a four-story building with apartments for teachers and retail shops that officials hope will revitalize downtown Welch in rural West Virginia.

Jeff Vincent, co-founder and director of the Center for Cities & Schools at the University of California, Berkeley, said educator housing complexes are rare, but he expects more places to explore the concept given the broad benefits of having staff and teachers live in the communities in which they work, where they can better get to know children and their families.

“As housing costs rise and school districts are struggling with teacher shortages, more and more are getting interested in, can we build workforce housing? You know, the one thing that school districts have is land,” Vincent said.

At the same time, housing development can be a blood sport, fraught with political and financial perils and projects have been doomed in California and other parts of the country for casting too much shadow, sticking out as an eyesore or not getting enough support from the community. Vincent urges districts to be cautious.

“You have a lot of opposition across California to new development or particularly higher density development,” Vincent said. “There are other questions of, is it the right role of a school district to own housing and to be a landlord in this way?”

Roughly a quarter of the 4,000-student Jefferson Union High School District’s 500 staff members were retiring or resigning every year. It is among the lowest paying districts in the region, unable to compete with wealthier schools with higher property values, officials said. Teacher salaries for the 2022-23 year start at $60,000 while neighboring districts start at $76,000 or $79,000.

So in 2017-2018, officials came up with a multi-prong plan to address retention, including construction of workforce housing financed in part by a $30 million bond measure approved by voters in 2018. The other part of the plan involves leasing school property for a 1,200-unit development that would mix retail with market-rate housing and generate revenue to beef up salaries.

The Sierra Club’s local chapter, however, has expressed concerns over the district’s leasing plan. They want the district to make more of the units available for rent at below-market rates, make the buildings taller and spare a decades-old garden scheduled for razing. So far, the district is opposed to those changes, inflaming critics.

A 2016 study by Redfin found that only 20% of homes for sale across major U.S. metro areas were affordable on an average teacher’s salary of $62,800, down from 34% in 2012. In California, only 17% of homes were affordable on the average state teacher salary of $73,536, down from 30% in 2012.

The average teacher could afford 0.2% of homes in San Francisco and none in Silicon Valley, the 2016 study found. The median sales price of a home in the region currently starts at $1.3 million.

California lawmakers in 2016 made it easier for districts to build workforce housing on school property, but some efforts have stalled over financing and residential pushback. As of January, roughly four dozen districts were pursuing such projects, all in varying stages, the California School Boards Association found. Los Angeles and Santa Clara school districts have built workforce housing.

After two decades of trying, San Francisco Unified plans to break ground in August on an affordable 134-unit complex for educators. It could be ready to lease in 2024 — two years behind schedule.

Jefferson Union was the rare success story. The new housing complex is surrounded by other apartment buildings and was constructed on an unused parking lot that’s part of an old high school currently used for district offices.

The apartments range in monthly rent from $1,400 for a one-bedroom to over $2,400 for a three-bedroom, which officials say is 58% of market rate. The walls are thick, dampening sound. There are multiple washers and dryers on every floor and a play structure for kids.

Tenants can stay up to five years, hopefully using the time to save up for a down payment on a house.

About 80 employees live in the units or will be by fall and another 30 employees are in the application process, including a dozen new hires, said Tina Van Raaphorst, associate superintendent of business services. About 50 of the 110 employees are classified workers, such as custodians and bus drivers. The average annual salary of residents is $62,300, she said.

Taylor and Darnel Garcia, both 27, despaired of ever moving out of a two-bedroom in-law unit that was too small for the couple and their children ages 3 and 6. The administrative assistant and her husband, a mechanic for the school district, pondered whether they could afford to stay in the Bay Area.

“We were kind of floating in the unknown for a while,” she said, sitting in the lobby of the building where they moved into a large three-bedroom apartment in May.