The perfect storm of teacher shortages and lack of available housing for new and existing teachers is a major headache for local school districts. But the real victims are the school children who will be deprived of the quality teachers they deserve. Our area risks losing the very people it’s counting on to educate its future stars and to close the education gap.
Ten years ago, the San Mateo County Community College District opened the first of 104 apartments for employees at Cañada College in Redwood City and College of San Mateo, who pay from $875 for a one-bedroom to $1,700 for three bedrooms. Applicants, who must not own another home, can stay for seven years and then, if desired, apply for a $50,000 low-cost home loan. More units are in process for Skyline College in San Bruno.
The Santa Clara Unified School District built Casa Del Maestro for its education staff in 2002 and again in 2009 and has seen retention rates rise. But there is already a 30-person waiting list and openings are rare. Meanwhile, four new schools are scheduled to open by 2019 and competition for the units will get tougher.
The San Mateo Union High School District has identified Mills High School as the best place to build teacher housing with the possibility of selling the former Crestmoor High School site in San Bruno, (closed decades ago) to pay for it. The San Bruno City Council has been unhelpful in the past. Let’s hope they cooperate now. The San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District has started looking at existing school property for a possible site. In a recent survey, 55 percent of its staff said they were considering relocating and 46 percent said they would need to leave the district and find employment elsewhere. Cupertino Union School District is discussing a proposal to build 200 affordable units in a vacant site in Santa Clara. San Francisco Unified School District plans to build 100-unit housing complex for public school teachers and paraprofessionals and invest up to $44 million over the next five years to help them purchase homes. In San Francisco, the starting teacher salary is just over $50,000, but the average rent in the city — $3,000 for a one-bedroom — would eat up most of those earnings. Meanwhile, South San Francisco Unified School District is looking at building staff housing as well.
It’s great to live in prosperous Silicon Valley but the quantum leap in housing prices, especially in the rental market, have made it difficult for existing staff to remain and harder for school districts to recruit. Usually about half of a district’s staff are renters and usually all new teachers who start at the beginning of the salary scale are. Increasing teacher salaries is not the answer, at least in the Bay Area. What you would have to pay teachers to afford current housing prices would bankrupt school districts. Ironically, teacher salaries are too high to qualify for most cities’ below market rate apartments.
There is a growing concern that life will not be sustainable for teachers in the next decade. Rent and often child care take a big chunk out of salaries; it is impossible to find housing close to schools where they teach; long expensive commutes take away time and energy best spent on students, not traffic; and the idea of a home ownership, especially for teachers with families, seems an impossible dream. And living far away from where they teach makes it harder to become part of the community. Of course this is true for much of the local workforce. What’s different is the impact on school children.
So it was no surprise at the turnout for a combined conference of affordable housing advocates and city and school officials at the College of San Mateo last week. They heard about the gap between teachers’ salaries and local housing prices; how some districts were working with cities and nonprofit developers to provide more workforce housing and how this would take at a minimum three years. How turnover was skyrocketing and how difficult it was to recruit qualified teachers because they could not find a place to live. How emergency credentials were soaring and how districts had to balance the need for filling a spot versus hiring someone they ordinarily would not.
This is a problem that is not going away by relying on market forces. New workforce/teacher housing is desperately needed and deserves the support of cities and neighborhoods. In the meantime, because three years is a long time, there needs to be rental assistance for current staff — those who can’t afford increases in their rents — and for hiring the best qualified to teach our kids and grandchildren.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.