Foothill-De Anza Community College District board members are looking into teacher housing, joining a growing number of agencies seeking creative ways to attract and keep teachers in a costly real estate market.
Trustees discussed the idea at a board meeting last week, looking to the neighboring San Mateo Community College District for ideas on how to pay for and manage homes reserved for district employees. Although it remains unclear how Foothill-De Anza would finance a similar project or where it would be located, board member Laura Casas said she believes the district needs to step up to support its teachers.
"I've been pushing for this because I believe, if we don't address this, we will be in a full-blown crisis," Casas told the Voice.
Foothill-De Anza is hardly alone. Several agencies in the region, including school districts, have acknowledged that teacher salaries aren't keeping pace with rising housing costs in the Bay Area, and have taken some pretty unusual steps to address the problem. Multiple districts have sought to aid teachers in financing down payments; the Los Altos School District launched a program to link teachers with homeowners who have a spare bedroom to rent; and the Mountain View Whisman School District has looked into building teacher housing on the edge of campuses and district-owned parkland.
Foothill-De Anza has a sterling reputation as one of the top community college districts in the state, Casas said, but she worries that could erode if the district fails to attract and retain top talent. With a bulge of faculty expected to retire in the coming years, she said the district is going to need to entice new teachers to work at Foothill and De Anza colleges, despite the housing crunch.
"I am concerned," she said. "Our staff has mentioned to me that offers out to potential faculty have been turned down as soon as they look at the cost of housing in the area."
For school districts considering a foray into residential projects, San Mateo Community College District frequently comes up as a potential model. Faculty and staff living in the 104 district-owned housing units pay significantly less than market rate -- ranging from $1,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $1,800 for the largest three-bedroom apartments -- and the intent is for tenants to save money for a down payment and eventually move out, according to a district staff report. Since opening the first housing development in 2005, nearly 50 of the residents have gone on to buy a home.
The district is planning to open a third housing development at Skyline College with 30 units, which is expected to open in spring 2020. San Mateo Community College District officials could not be reached for comment prior to the Voice's Wednesday press deadline.
Foothill-De Anza board member Pearl Cheng agreed that faculty in the district are struggling with long commutes, high mortgage payments and high rents, and voiced support for the idea of following in the footsteps of San Mateo. The only hitch, she said, is that the neighboring college district had plenty of excess land, whereas Foothill-De Anza doesn't have the same luxury.
"(Finding) available land is a helpful starting point," she said. "We will review everything we have."
One potential option, Casas said, is to build housing units on the De Anza campus at the location of the college's Flint Center for the Performing Arts. She said it hasn't been a big money generator with so many competing venues in the area, but conceded the idea may be a hard sell to the community. The center has been around since the 1970s, and was the venue where Steve Jobs introduced the original Apple Macintosh in 1984.
"Who knows how the community might feel about converting that?" Casas said. "But we're going to have to come up with some sort of concrete plan. If we don't find a solution soon, the quality of our workforce will suffer."
To that end, Foothill-De Anza board members are scheduled later this month to discuss whether to pitch in $600,000 for a joint-agency effort to build teacher housing in Palo Alto. The idea, spearheaded by Joe Simitian, proposes that Santa Clara County construct a 60- to 120-unit affordable housing complex specifically for teachers working in North County school districts, including Foothill-De Anza.
The proposal includes a funding partnership between the county and Palo Alto Unified, Mountain View Whisman, Mountain View-Los Altos, Los Altos and the Foothill-De Anza districts -- all of which are being asked to contribute the same amount for a share of the units. Foothill-De Anza Chancellor Judy Miner expressed "strong interest" in the project as a means to battle the increasing difficulty in hiring teachers, according to a January letter sent to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
"When workers live elsewhere and have long commutes each way, it affects the culture of the institution and undermines efforts to attract the most highly qualified employees, replace retiring workers, and diversify the workforce to better reflect the communities we serve," Miner said in the letter.
Rather than working solo to create staff housing, Foothill-De Anza might have similar opportunities on the horizon to partner with other agencies as a means to mitigate the high cost of land and construction, said Kevin McElroy, the district's vice chancellor of business services. This a regional problem that everyone is facing, he said, and cooperation may be the best chance of hanging on to teachers.
"We all tend to work in our own little worlds," he said. "Our own cities or counties or special districts, but we're all facing the same problem with the high cost of living, and recruitment and replacement."