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Silicon Valley teachers can’t afford rent, so they’re turning old schools into teacher housing

As rising housing costs price out teachers around the country, districts are coming up with more creative solutions for affordable housing. But their neighbors aren’t always so supportive.

Silicon Valley teachers can’t afford rent, so they’re turning old schools into teacher housing
[Source Image: urfinguss/iStock]

In San Jose, California–recently ranked as the least affordable place in the country to buy a home, where a typical rental goes for $3441, around 50% more than it did six years ago–the local school district now wants to turn some schools into hundreds of housing units for teachers.

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“Right now, we’re losing about one in seven classroom teachers every school year, and the No. 1 cited reason for leaving the district is the cost of living,” says Stephen McMahon, deputy superintendent for the San Jose Unified School District.

Even the tech sector is challenged to recruit employees because local housing is so unaffordable, he says. But while tech jobs are concentrated in Silicon Valley, teachers can easily move a few hours away and get a job with a similar salary but pay far less in rent or for a mortgage. “There are almost unlimited options as a public school teacher, so we’re not able to compete in this marketplace,” he says.

A growing number of school districts are considering similar plans to turn district property, including old schools, into housing. In San Francisco, where at least one teacher has dealt with homelessness, plans to build a new development with more than 100 apartments for teachers. In Palo Alto, California, there’s a proposal to build teacher housing on county-owned land. Miami wants to build a new middle school with a residential floor for teachers and a new housing complex next to an elementary school. In Washington, D.C., a former college building will become affordable housing for local teachers. An empty elementary school in Chicago is slated to become a “teacher’s village.” The small but expensive town of Vail, Arizona, plans to build tiny houses for teachers.

[Source Image: urfinguss/iStock]
Communities often oppose the plans, because they feel that less valuable rental units that might lower the property value of their single family homes or might lead to lower income people moving into the neighborhood. When the school district in Cupertino, California, where Apple is headquartered, announced that it wanted to build 200 housing units for teachers in an empty elementary school, there was so much opposition that it abandoned the idea. In nearby Millbrae, California–where the local superintendent has said that some teachers are forced to couch surf–some students protested a plan to build new housing for teachers.

In San Jose, the housing crisis is likely to get worse. Several new office complexes are planned in the city’s downtown, and new planned transit stations will attract more businesses and more demand for housing. Because the cost of living has already driven some families away, the school district sees an opportunity to consolidate some schools and turn newly vacant schools into teacher housing. The district also plans to build a new middle school and high school on undeveloped land. Neighbors have opposed these plans as well.

“We think it’s a win for everybody,” says McMahon. “Students get a state of the art facility, and we get an increased likelihood that we can get teachers to stay with us because we can support them with teacher housing. To us, it’s a great win. The community backlash is . . . just very negative on the term affordable housing. We’re trying to convince them that these are the same teachers you send your kids to every day. These teachers are going to make great neighbors.”

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The neighboring city of Santa Clara has had a small number of housing units for teachers for several years. San Jose hopes to do the same thing on a larger scale, with 300-400 units that would be available for all school employees, from teachers to groundskeepers and bus drivers. The school district would manage the property. “In large part, it’s not different than managing the 3.3 million square feet of school facilities we already have,” he says. “It’s just a different type of property management. It’s housing instead of classrooms.”

Other people with critical roles in the community, including nurses and firefighters, are also struggling to find housing. But the school district has the advantage of being a major landowner, and a recent state law makes it possible for the district to restrict housing to district employees–something that would otherwise be illegal–while using state and federal low-income housing credits.

The district is currently analyzing several sites to determine which would be optimal for housing, and will then need to work with the city, county, and development partners in a multi-year process. Taylor Swenson, a local math and science teacher, says that if the housing is built, it could convince her to continue working in the district. Swenson and her husband, who both grew up in San Jose, work full-time but are struggling to afford housing. “I think if we knew that something was on the horizon to support myself or teachers like myself, I think it would be really motivating,” she says.

“[Teachers] know that there’s no more important issue than this,” says McMahon. “There’s a consensus that we’re not going to be able to keep up salary rise, so we have to address the affordability of housing in another way, which is directly through the housing . . . They also realize that the market forces are beyond the district’s control, and that there’s nothing San Jose Unified can do to make housing more affordable, except for employee housing on its own. And that’s what we’re going to try.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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