A proposal to build affordable housing for North County school employees in Palo Alto is picking up steam, after one local school district agreed to "identify" and set aside $600,000 to help finance the project. Four other local school districts are being asked to follow suit.
The housing idea, spearheaded by County Supervisor Joe Simitian earlier this year, proposes constructing at least 60 housing units on county-owned land at 231 Grant Ave. exclusively for teachers and school faculty. In order to pay for the steep costs of the project -- estimated at $36 million -- Simitian is banking on each of the five regional school districts to pony up $600,000 for their share of the units.
The Mountain View Whisman School District, Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, Los Altos School District, Palo Alto Unified School District and the Foothill-De Anza Community College District are all being asked to join. The multilaterial partnership is still conceptual in nature, and key details like the total number of units and the cost of rent could change prior to final approval.
The first district to jump on the opportunity was Foothill-De Anza, when the board of trustees voted unanimously on Aug. 27 to find sources of funding that could be used to pay for the district's contribution. Foothill-De Anza isn't exactly in a strong financial position, with declining enrollment and deficit spending on the horizon, but trustees have voiced interest in finding ways to attract and retain staff.
In a letter to school officials, Simitian wrote that many teachers find themselves unable to pay for the high cost of housing in Silicon Valley and are frequently priced out of the area. While this rings true for many residents outside of the profession as well, Simitian stated that teachers often find themselves making too much to qualify for low-income housing but too little to actually afford to rent or buy a home.
"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 or close to the communities where they teach," Simitian said in a statement following the Foothill-De Anza vote.
Los Altos School District board members agreed last week that it was premature to throw their weight behind the proposal and commit $600,000 in funding, and that several questions would need to be answered first. Trustees asked staff to come back with information on employee interest in the proposal, expected rents, how rental income would be used and how long teachers could remain in the housing units. Despite the cautious approach, some board members showed early support for the idea.
"I definitely think we progress down the path with this," said board member Jessica Speiser. "It's a great movement to help teachers in any way we can."
Los Altos Superintendent Jeff Baier said that Simitian's plan, which has taken shape over the last few months, would likely cost the district $200,000 each year for three years, and in exchange the district would gain access to 12 two-bedroom housing units within the development. The financing structure for the proposal also makes a big ask of the county -- which has set aside $6 million for the project -- and the city of Palo Alto, which is being asked to commit $3 million. The rest of the $24 million in estimated costs wold come from low- or no-interest loans from investors.
The proposal circumvents the high cost of land, often seen as a major barrier for affordable housing developments, by building the project on county-owned land next to the Palo Alto courthouse. Simitian argued in February 2017 that the plot of land was "dramatically underutilized" and could be a potential site for affordable housing during a discussion on how to spend $950 million in Measure A funding.
The remaining school districts have yet to hold a public meeting on Simitian's idea. Palo Alto Unified Board of Education President Ken Dauber told the Weekly that the board’s agenda-setting committee recently decided to discuss the proposal in several months as part of a "more comprehensive review of alternatives for addressing teacher housing."
"Speaking personally, I appreciate Supervisor Simitian's initiative in developing this proposal and raising the visibility of this issue," Dauber said. "I look forward to looking at creative alternatives for meeting the housing needs of the district's teachers and other staff members."
The Palo Alto board last discussed the project in January, when trustees directed staff to begin talks with the county and agreed to send a letter of support but were careful not to include the action of "initiating cost-sharing discussions."
Mountain View-Los Altos High School District Superintendent Jeff Harding said he is open to talk about the proposal, but the letter he received from Simitian's office was simply outlining a general concept rather than a solid proposal. The district does not have plans to discuss its involvement in the partnership, he said.
Mountain View Whisman board members also have yet to weigh in, and district officials say it's not on any future agendas. Board member Tamara Wilson said in an email that she wasn't prepared to throw her support behind the housing project -- citing a need for more information -- but she said she's open to the idea.
"Any teacher housing investment that is financially sound and supports quality teacher retention in MVWSD will get my support," she said.