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Local leaders, teachers gather for workforce housing town hall

Meeting covers area projects including Palo Alto complex for educators

About 70 people gathered at Sequoia High School in Redwood City on Feb. 13 to discuss possible solutions to a crisis that's plaguing educators in San Mateo County: the scarcity of affordable places to live in the communities in which they work.

Representatives of the Sequoia Union High School District, smaller neighboring school districts and local housing groups, along with politicians like Redwood City's City Council member Giselle Hale, discussed potential solutions, while teachers in attendance shared their plights.

Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian moderated the panel, "Mid-Peninsula Teacher Town Hall: Can We Solve the Teacher Housing Crisis?" Town Hall panelists included Sarah Chaffin, a parent and founder of SupportTeacherHousing.org, a group working to encourage local school districts to build teacher housing, who organized the event; Edith Salvatore, president of the Sequoia District Teachers Association; Armando Sanchez, executive director of HEART (Housing Endowment and Regional Trust of San Mateo County), a local housing assistance program; and Maya Perkins, a regional housing and transportation expert and a strategic initiatives manager at Facebook.

Struggles and consequences

It's become difficult to build staff collegiality with teachers who face daunting traffic if they were to stay after school for an event, such as an employee mixer on a Friday afternoon, Menlo-Atherton High School Principal Simone Rick-Kennel noted at the meeting. She added that her staff members are moving out of the area because of the high cost of living.

Rick-Kennel, M-A's principal since the 2015-16 school year, said she tries to take care of her staff, but knows they struggle daily with commutes.

Several teachers spoke of their struggles to afford to live in the area. Sequoia High School teacher Jose Rosario has taken on odd jobs to afford housing in the area, and even drove for Uber. He's picked up former students three times, he said.

"I want good pay for good work," he said at the meeting. "I don't want sympathy. I want to know I don't have to spend more than the next 10 years saving for a home."

The quality of teachers' lives affects the students' education, Salvatore said. Students in the area are not getting their teachers' full attention the way previous generations did, she said.

"Some students come to me who had three different math teachers (in a year) because teachers had to leave," she said.

Workforce housing projects

Local government agencies are considering measures to help educators secure affordable housing. Simitian is spearheading a partnership with local school districts and cities to build a 60- to 120-unit affordable housing complex for local teachers and staff. The teacher housing would be built on a Santa Clara County-owned, 1.5-acre site at 231 Grant Ave. in Palo Alto.

"Teachers make what we used to call a middle-class salary, except in this housing market it just doesn't seem that way anymore," Simitian said at the event. "It is a solvable problem; we need the political will to do it."

In September 2018, the Ravenswood City School District Board of Education directed staff to explore building affordable housing for teachers and staff on the site of a former school James Flood Magnet School in eastern Menlo Park. It takes partnerships between cities and school districts, and parent support for educator housing to make these projects happen, said Sharifa Wilson, a Ravenswood City School District school board member. She doesn't want certain school staff left out of the conversation, though.

"Every time people say 'teacher housing,' I say 'workforce housing,'" she said. "Support staff also need that opportunity."

The Sequoia district has not ruled out the possibility of building teacher housing.

Challenges of building housing

Mueller predicted that residents will say "not near me" once developers try to build housing.

SupportTeacherHousing.org has an "army" of teachers — over 3,000 — ready to speak at city council and school board meetings to support housing, Chaffin said.

"My idea was to activate teachers in the community for workforce housing and then find a (housing) project to get a clear path to community support ahead of time," she said. Her group began organizing four years ago, but went public only last year, she said.

Development will not happen immediately, but some school districts are sitting on "very valuable land" that, if they're willing to part with it, can be used for teacher housing, said Sanchez.

Once you take land cost out of a project by building on district-owned land, there are more options, he said. There is an idea that school districts need to raise a lot of money to build educator housing, but bonds, financing and the rents teachers will pay to live there can cover costs. Parents can also raise money -- through foundations -- to do studies exploring possible sites to build housing within a district.

Other solutions

Others at the meeting said there could be bigger, statewide solutions to benefit local teachers.

Salvatore suggested that changes to the state tax code could bring more money to schools. In January, the California Teachers Association voted to support a 2020 tax ballot initiative, the California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act, to restore $11 billion annually to schools, community colleges, health clinics, and other vital local services. This would be possible by rolling back Proposition 13 restrictions on tax increases for commercial properties.

One way to pay teachers more is to raise funding levels for schools in the state, Redwood City School District Trustee Alisa Greene MacAvoy said at the meeting. She recommended that people visit fullandfairfunding.org, to sign a California School Boards Association petition to ask the state Legislature to raise school funding to the national average by 2020 and to the average of the top 10 states by 2025. Adjusted for cost of living, California ranks 41st in per-pupil funding, according to the petition.

One audience member commented that more corporate representatives should have attended the meeting to address how they'll help support housing needs in the area.

Perkins noted that Facebook established the Catalyst Housing Fund in 2016 to increase the construction and protection of affordable housing. She urged the public and teachers to speak out, telling corporations, "We need this — please build housing."

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Angela Swartz writes for The Almanac, the sister publication of PaloAltoOnline.com.

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