Confronting the housing dilemma for teachers

Confronting the housing dilemma for teachers

(Calif.) A Richmond lawmaker wants the state to pony up $100 million to help school districts build housing for teachers, who often are unable to afford to live in the communities in which they work.

By establishing a grant program that offers “development financing assistance” to districts “for the creation of affordable rental housing” for employees, the plan by Democratic Assemblyman Tony Thurmond provides some leverage for schools to partner with other local agencies or businesses to build economical housing as an incentive to get and retain teachers.

“We have teachers in the Bay Area who have some of the lowest salaries while at the same time the housing prices and rents are among the highest,” said Thurmond in an interview. “It certainly speaks to the need for a program like this teacher housing pilot so we can provide affordable housing for these important members of our workforce and at the same time be able to also provide a way to address the achievement gap.”

Thurmond’s AB 2200 is one of numerous legislative proposals both in California and across the country taking aim at a severe teacher shortage that has left many districts scrambling to find enough qualified educators to fill thousands of available jobs. Some would offer housing subsidies, signing bonuses and student loan forgiveness programs to education graduates who agree to work in hard-to-staff schools and subjects, such as math, science and special education.

While the idea of districts providing housing for school staff is not a new concept, until recently it has remained fairly uncommon. In just the last couple of years, however, as the cost of living has quickly outpaced wage increases, a handful of districts have moved forward on their own to develop affordable housing for teachers and staff.

Los Angeles Unified has built or is in the process of building three affordable apartment complexes with a total of 185 units for staff and teachers.

Cupertino Union School District announced in December that it wants to build 200 housing units for its employees by 2019 on the site of an elementary school that closed in 1983. The district will offer the apartments to teachers and staff at below market rates.

Similar projects are being considered in Oakland and San Mateo school districts, and the city of San Francisco is reportedly moving forward with plans to build 100 housing units for the city’s educators in a partnership with San Francisco Unified.

But most California school districts don’t have the funding to even pay for preliminary analysis, which can be upwards of $100,000, to determine the viability of a project, much less afford to build it outright, Thurmond said.

"We do know that a lot of districts are beginning to think about the idea of providing housing for their employees and a few have done it but what we also know is that most school districts – and I served on a school board so I know first-hand – don’t have money to acquire land, to do pre-development, and certainly not for construction of housing," said Thurmond. "That falls out of what most school district's general funds could do or sustain, and so with a pilot program like this you could provide money for anywhere from a dozen to two dozen districts to help them with their pre-development and construction costs."

AB 2022 would require the California Housing Finance Agency to administer the School Employee Housing Assistance grant program, funded by a $100 million General Fund contribution.

Districts would qualify for funding, according to the legislation, if they have surplus land, a high average cost for recruiting teachers, a low teacher retention rate and 60 percent of its student population participates in the federal free and reduced school lunch program.

An eligible district must also “show a measurable degree of incapacity to fund the predevelopment project costs,” according to the bill.

Further details have yet to be worked out as the proposal works its way through the legislative process.

Although school districts have received billions in extra funding from the state the last few years, those monies are generally restricted to day-to-day operational and academic programming costs.

Meanwhile, some legislators are calling for billions in unanticipated revenue to be deposited into the state’s rainy day fund, rather than be spent on new programs.

But, said Thurmond, if estimates from the Legislative Analysts Office prove accurate, the state, even after meeting all of its statutory budet requirements including Prop. 98 education funding, is poised to have as much as an additional $4 billion to work with.

"I feel very confident that with that kind of revenue there are opportunities to afford a program like the teacher housing program," the Assemblyman said. “The districts in my area are serving largely students of color and low income and it’s high teacher turnover that robs us of a well-prepared workforce to help the kids who need the most help.

"We have teachers who want to help but they are just being pushed out of the market, and so the teacher housing bill allows us to address two challenges at once -- providing quality housing to important members of our community who then,in turn, are better suited to be able to help our children succeed," he said. more