The Mountain View Whisman School District took small steps towards addressing a big problem Thursday night, when board members agreed to look at constructing teacher housing.
The skyrocketing cost of living in the Bay Area has fueled an exodus of teachers who can no longer afford to live in or near Mountain View. Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph told the board at its March 17 meeting that teachers would be hard-pressed to pay the average rent in Mountain View -- between $2,600 and $2,900 a month -- when the average teacher pay is close to $69,000 annually. Teachers either move out of the area and endure a long commute, or rely on a shared-living situation.
"It's really an issue for our teachers, especially our youngest teachers," Rudolph said. "There are reports out there of individuals who are renting out rooms like dorms in downtown Mountain View for about $1,000 a pop."
Teachers have long complained that the district's salaries fall short of the cost of living near Mountain View, a problem that has become increasingly hard for district administrators to ignore. Last year, the school district had to fill 55 teaching positions for the 2015-16 school year after a mass exodus of teachers who resigned -- meaning about 1 in 5 teachers in the district are new hires this school year.
It would be one thing if teacher retention was an isolated incident last year, but it's been a chronic problem. Jonathan Pharazyn, president of the Mountain View Educators Association, told the Voice last year that the district has had to hire 170 new teachers in the last four years, following a sustained loss of both new and veteran teaching staff. Pharazyn has frequently advocated for the district to make a bold move, such as partnering with the city, to find a way to make housing affordable for teachers.
A recent poll found conducted by the Mountain View Whisman School District found that roughly 70 percent of its teachers live outside of the district's boundaries, due in large part to the high cost of living in the area. Nearly all the district's teachers -- 229 -- participated in the survey, and more than half said they would consider moving to the district if they were offered an affordable place to live.
Board president Ellen Wheeler said she was all for moving forward with studying teacher housing options, which she said could help the school district attract prospective teachers in the Bay Area.
"I'm interested in seeing if we can figure out a way to provide rental housing for teachers in some manner," Wheeler said. "We always talk about attracting and retaining teachers, (and) I think this would be a draw for new teachers."
There are a couple of constraints limiting on the school district when it comes to building affordable housing, Rudolph said. The school district cannot pass a bond to fund a teacher housing project, and the school district cannot funnel general fund money into subsidizing a housing development. On the flip side, he said, the school district cannot use the apartments as source of revenue.
Because buying land would be cost-prohibitive, the school district would have to use its own land for teacher housing, which Rudolph said could be a little tricky. The school district owns excess land at the former Whisman and Slater Elementary sites, as well as land at Cooper and Sylvan parks, but finding a spot that allows for high-density housing will be problematic.
"We have a lot of land in our district that is available for us to use, but some of the most ideal spots that we have are actually not in places (zoned for) high density," Rudolph said. "The residents that live there would probably put up a fight against putting up high-density property."
Affordable housing options do exist in Mountain View, but haven't done much for teachers. The city's Below-Market Rate (BMR) Housing Ordinance give teachers priority in a lottery system that allows residents to live in subsidized units, but Rudolph said wait lists are too long and the BMR housing stock is too low to make a big difference. The Mountain View City Council has taken steps to add to affordable housing in the city, including a decision earlier this month that would pour $22 million into a dense, 116-unit apartment complex on Evelyn Avenue. But the income restrictions to live there -- no more than $37,250 for individuals and $63,780 for a family of four -- mean that most teachers don't qualify because their salaries are considered too high.
Board member Bill Lambert questioned whether building a single affordable housing development would put a dent in what has become a massive problem for teaching staff in the school district. Rudolph said it all depends on the scale of a project, and that something along the lines of a 70-unit apartment complex would be enough to house nearly a third of all the teachers in the district.
The prime example of what could be built for teachers in Mountain View is not far away. In 2002, the Santa Clara Unified School District built 40 apartments solely for teachers, for the relatively low cost of $6 million. The district teamed up with Thompson Dorfman Partners, a residential development firm that specializes in teacher housing and works with school districts at a lower cost.
The average rent for the units in Santa Clara's development is between $800 and $1,400 a month, but there are a few strings attached. The apartments are only available to teachers who have been in the district for fewer than three years, and there's a five-year limit for all the tenants. The expectation is that teachers are saving up while they live there, and may be able to afford a down payment and mortgage to buy a home.
Board members agreed at the March 17 meeting that it would be a good idea to look at housing options for teachers, but said they needed a better idea of the demand first. The district will be sending out a new survey to all district employees -- not just teachers -- to find out their average commute time, the rent they are currently paying, and other key information to assess the scope of any future housing project.
One way the district could finance the project is through a certificate of participation, which the district could pay off solely through rental revenue from the teacher residents. Rudolph said the district would need to assess a break-even point where rents are high enough to avoid encumbering the general fund.
Prior to the meeting, Rudolph said he spoke to Los Altos School District board member Sangeeth Peruri to discuss what teacher housing options are already up and running in the Bay Area, and what kind of models have been successful. In talking to Peruri, Rudolph said it became clear that someone -- it wasn't clear who -- was going to have to spearhead the teacher housing effort to make it work, which he said was an essential ingredient for Santa Clara Unified School District's housing project.
"They were talking about it for over a year and the superintendent said, 'It's time to stop talking and it's time to start doing something,'" Rudolph said. "There has to be a champion that's willing to see it all the way through, because this is a big time commitment to pull this off."