UPDATE: The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the proposal for teacher housing on Tuesday, Jan. 23.
To help teachers cope with the increasingly high cost of living in the Bay Area, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian is proposing the county partner with local school districts and cities to build a 60- to 120-unit affordable housing complex in Palo Alto.
The teacher housing would be built on a county-owned, 1.5-acre site at 231 Grant Ave. in Palo Alto, near the California Avenue Business District. The project would require "innovative" funding partnerships with local school districts, including Palo Alto Unified, Mountain View Whisman, Mountain View Los Altos, Los Altos and the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, as well as cities, a press release from Simitian's office states.
Simitian said he has had "very preliminary conversations," with the superintendents of all four school districts and Foothill De-Anza's chancellor, as well as spoken with the city of Palo Alto's planning director and city manager.
"It's better for everyone – folks trying to avoid traffic, kids getting an education, school districts trying to hire and retain the very best teachers for our schools, and of course our teachers themselves – when our teachers can live in the communities where they teach," Simitian said in the release. "It's never easy to develop workforce housing in such an expensive area; but we have the land, and we know there are partners who want to make this work."
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors will vote on the proposal on Tuesday.
In an interview, Simitian said that the proposal arose from a longtime desire to repurpose the Grant Avenue site, which offers the potential to tackle two challenges: affordable housing and teacher retention.
According to Simitian, local school districts are facing teacher shortages and retention issues due to the region's high cost of living. In Palo Alto Unified, teachers have spoken out about the economic and housing challenges they face in the area.
In the 2015-16 school year, according to data provided by the school district, the top five cities Palo Alto Unified teachers lived in were Palo Alto (21 percent), San Jose (11 percent), Mountain View (10 percent), Redwood City (8 percent) and Menlo Park (7.5 percent). Smaller percentages were scattered throughout the Bay Area, from East Palo Alto and Los Altos to Morgan Hill and Felton.
Most classified staff also lived in Palo Alto that year (37 percent), followed by San Jose (11 percent), Mountain View (8 percent), Redwood City (6.5 percent) and East Palo Alto (5 percent).
Simitian said he has not yet looked at hard data, but all of the school superintendents' immediate response to his proposal was, "'You have no idea the challenges we're facing in this regard.'"
"They were all anxious to take the conversation to the next level," he said.
Several school and teachers' union leaders have already expressed their support for the proposal in letters to the Board of Supervisors, including Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA); Jeff Harding, superintendent of the Mountain View Los Altos High School District; Judy Miner, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District; and Brian Wheatley, president of the Evergreen Teachers Association in San Jose.
Baldwin wrote that the "vast majority" of Palo Alto Unified's 900 teachers cannot afford to live in Palo Alto.
"As median income earners, we earn too much to qualify for for low-income housing, but not enough to afford market rate rents, let alone payments on a purchase," she wrote. "Even with newly constructed apartment complexes adding to the housing supply in the area, typical rent can exceed half of the monthly take-home salary of an experienced teacher."
Palo Alto Unified Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks, by contrast, said that the district has not struggled with teacher retention and currently has only two vacant positions in special education. She said there is no evidence linking retention to high cost of living, but that the district is aware that many staff members commute to Palo Alto "and that traffic can cause a lengthy commute in some cases."
Hendricks did not say whether she plans to write a letter of support for the proposal, but if it's approved, the district "could investigate opportunities regarding this option with the county as well as other potential partners."
An increasing number of school districts across the Bay Area, including Mountain View Whisman, San Jose Unified and San Francisco Unified, are considering teacher housing proposals, while some already offer housing.
Several years ago, Santa Clara Unified School District had built a 70-unit below-market housing complex on district land specifically to house new teachers and address high teacher turnover. The San Mateo County Community College District also offers workforce housing.
Outside organizations are also working on this issue. Last summer, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative pledged $5 million to create a home down payment support fund through housing startup Landed for educators who work in the Redwood City, Ravenswood City and Sequoia Union High School districts.
While the Grant Avenue site could accommodate more than 100 units, Simitian noted that "all parties will have to be open to change as community members and funding partners weigh in on what is both possible and compatible with the surrounding community."
Simitian said that construction could cost $500,000 to $600,000 per unit for a multifamily complex.
He emphasized that funding the project will require "something other than an off-the-shelf solution."
"If we confine ourselves to the conventional solutions I think that's going to limit us," he said.
Community services currently offered at the site, including a county public defender office, could be relocated nearby or remain there on the ground floor, the release states. Parking on the site could be replaced with a structure across the street on the Palo Alto Courthouse lot. This could potentially create more parking in a heavily impacted part of Palo Alto, Simitian noted.
Palo Alto Mayor Liz Kniss, a former school board member, expressed support for Simitian's proposal in the release.
"This strikes me as an incredible opportunity to provide workforce housing and strengthen our schools," she said. "Done right, it really is a win-win."
Sarah Chaffin, a local parent and founder of SupportTeacherHousing.org, which is working to encourage Bay Area school districts to build teacher housing on privately owned land, described Simitian's proposal as a potential "game changer in terms of solving the teacher housing crisis," and one that "could inspire others to follow its example."
SupportTeacherHousing.org and Bay Area Forward are hosting a town hall at Gunn High School this Thursday, Jan. 25, for "teachers to share their stories about how the housing crisis has affected them," the release states. A panel moderated by Simitian will discuss possible solutions.
The panel will feature Miner of the Foothill-De Anza college district; Baldwin of the Palo Alto Educators Association; Stephen Levy, director and senior economist of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto; and Karen Parolek, whose Berkeley design firm Opticos develops affordable housing.
The town hall will run from 4-6 p.m. at Gunn's library, 780 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto.
If the Board of Supervisors approves the proposal, they will direct staff to find a partner with which to develop the site, discuss "cost-sharing" for the project and return with a financing plan no later than May, a staff report states.
If approved, the county aims to have a partner selected no later than August.