Palo Alto school board members directed staff on Tuesday to begin talks with Santa Clara County about a collaborative proposal to build affordable housing for teachers in Palo Alto, with some caution about the project's financial feasibility.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian proposed last week, with the unanimous support of his colleagues, that a piece of county-owned land at 231 Grant Ave. be developed into 60 to 120 units of affordable housing for local teachers. He has stressed that the project would require "innovative" funding partnerships, and is looking to the Palo Alto school district as well as Mountain View Whisman, Mountain View Los Altos, Los Altos and the Foothill-De Anza Community College districts and local cities as potential partners.
While most Palo Alto board members signaled their support for the idea of adding more housing for teachers in an increasingly expensive market, some questioned how school districts would actually help pay for a development. The school district was advised by attorneys not to issue a bond for teacher housing, which might technically not be considered school facilities, staff said.
"The happy case is that construction costs would produce, in the presence of free land, a financial situation that wouldn't require much in the way of contributions in addition to that," said board President Ken Dauber. "Otherwise it's going to be hard to see how we can make significant contributions."
Simitian has estimated that construction of a multifamily complex could cost $500,000 to $600,000 per unit.
Board members agreed to send a letter of support, as other school districts have done, but were careful not to include the action "initiate cost-sharing discussions."
Leadership from other districts and teachers unions, including from Palo Alto, have already penned letters of support that describe the economic hardships teachers face as part of the "missing middle" — making too much to qualify for low-income housing but not able to afford to rent or purchase homes in the city they work in. In Palo Alto, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $3,080 at the end of 2017, according to ApartmentList.com.
Simitian argues that the housing will help districts that are struggling to retain and attract teachers.
The "vast majority" of Palo Alto Unified teachers cannot live in Palo Alto, Palo Alto Educators Association Teri Baldwin wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors, and the long commute "takes a toll on our teachers' quality of life and decreases the value of their salaries."
At a town hall at Gunn High School last week, teachers described living with parents, in-laws or multiple roommates to afford to stay in the area, and increasingly long commutes that prevent them from attending events or connecting with students after school hours.
Data provided by the school district shows that the number of teachers living in Palo Alto and neighboring cities has dropped slightly over the last three years.
In the 2015-16 school year, just 21 percent of Palo Alto Unified's 898 teachers lived in the city, down to 19 percent in 2016-17 and the same percentage this year. The total number of teachers employed has not changed significantly over those years.
Three years ago, about 32 percent of teachers lived in cities within roughly 7 miles of Palo Alto, from Mountain View to Redwood City. That number dropped to 30 percent last year and 29 percent this year.
Data provided by Palo Alto Unified in May 2016 showed that 70 percent of district teachers would earn salaries in excess of $100,000 for the 2016-17 school year. The county's median income, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is $74,200 for a single person and $113,349 for a family of four.
On Tuesday, board member Terry Godfrey urged staff to approach this as a regional problem and to better understand where the most need is, which she said might not be in Palo Alto. She noted a Mountain View Whisman School District survey found that over one-third of employees there were paying more than 30 percent of their paycheck on housing costs.
"If we're looking at a regional solution I'd rather partner with the other districts to figure out what the needs are … (and) how we can best serve the students in the region versus just ourselves," she said.
Board member Todd Collins offered a potential alternative, which he said he has also floated to Simitian's office: The county could ground lease the property to the Palo Alto school district, which could then build its own housing project there.
Even if the project was built as proposed, units would be split amongst multiple districts, meaning the impact on one district's needs could be small, Dauber noted. He suggested the district view the proposal as a catalyst to spur "our own thinking and efforts" rather than a "solution to the problem."
"If we really are serious about addressing teacher housing in the district then we need to look at things like where in the district do we have land here we can build," Dauber said.
The board ultimately voted 4-0, with Collins abstaining, to direct staff to engage with the county.
County staff plan to return to the Board of Supervisors with a financing plan no later than May, with the goal of having a partner or partners selected no later than August.
At last week's town hall, Simitian said he's asking school districts to embrace taking an "off-the-shelf approach" to a regional problem.
"This isn't anything any one of us can do by ourselves, but if we all do our part, I think we can do something," he told a full room of teachers, school leadership and housing advocates.
In other business Tuesday, the school board approved a revised comment letter on Stanford University's proposed general use permit. They are asking the university to set aside land for a new elementary school to accommodate future growth and to commit to not seek property-tax exemptions if the university purchases housing in Palo Alto as it expands, among other requests.
The board approved the letter 4-0, with Dauber, whose wife is employed by Stanford, recusing himself.