Responding to an overwhelming need by local school teachers for more affordable housing, Mountain View Whisman School District board members agreed last week to explore building workforce housing at Cooper Park, transforming a portion of the district-owned land into three-story townhouses for school staff.
Last year, the district commissioned a feasibility study to figure out whether it would be possible to build below-market-rate housing units for its teachers and classified employees. The goal was to provide some kind of financial incentive for prospective teachers -- as well as relief for current teachers -- in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country.
The 71-page report, released earlier this month, shows how the district could leverage its vacant land at the former Whisman Elementary as well as Cooper Park in order to finance housing construction at sites all over the district, including on small areas at schools like Bubb, Huff and Landels. School board members largely favored focusing on teacher housing at the 9.5 acres of district land at Cooper Park on Eunice Avenue.
Among the proposals, the school board could choose to build 82 studios and one- and two-bedroom townhouses in the center of Cooper Park, and finance the project by selling off 36 single-family residential lots along the edges of the property at market rate. Assuming that each lot is worth about $1 million, the district can use the city's strong real estate market to finance an otherwise cost-prohibitive teacher housing project, said Leah Denman, a consultant with DCG Strategies.
"You would still continue to own the middle section (of Cooper Park), but the perimeter would fund the development of your workforce housing, making it cost-neutral," Denman told board members at the Jan. 18 meeting.
The perimeter of single-family homes would also make it more palatable for Waverly Park residents, who would otherwise be right next door to a fairly large development, Denman said. Workforce rental rates would be 70 percent of the market rate, and under the proposal would generate about $700,000 each year. Rental income would could help pay off any leftover debt from the construction as well as fund operating costs. Rough estimates found that the townhouses would likely cost $45.1 million to build, which exceeds the estimated $36 million expected from selling the single-family lots.
A survey of teachers and school staff conducted by DCG Strategies found that more than 70 percent of respondents live outside the city of Mountain View, and 79 percent pay more than 35 percent of their household income for housing costs. More than half of the respondents said they were not satisfied with their current housing situation, and would be interested in relocating to a district-run workforce housing project.
DCG co-founder Dominic Dutra said that Mountain View is not alone, and that districts are facing the same problem throughout the state. New teachers frequently have a three-way choice between a financially unsustainable housing situation, living with their parents or driving two to three hours each day just to get to work. More than two-thirds of the respondents in the Mountain View Whisman survey said they are considering moving away or switching careers because of their inability to find affordable housing.
"We see this as a key issue, and it's something that has become very prevalent," he said.
Although school board members took no formal action at the meeting, a majority of trustees favored the idea of using the Cooper Park site for housing teachers. Board member Ellen Wheeler said the lower rental costs would "go a long way" towards both attracting and retaining teaching staff. Board member Jose Gutierrez called it a good start towards solving the long-term problem of teacher retention, and that a perimeter of single-family homes is a clever way of avoiding a clash with the neighboring residents while also financing the project.
"I like the way that this is envisioned because when you look at the layout, you have the ability to have that buffer," Gutierrez said "You still don't lose the neighborhood aspect of that area."
Board member Greg Coladonato has largely favored the idea of exploring teacher housing, but said he had reservations about selling off district-owned land as a means for financing the project. He pointed to Los Altos School District's costly effort to purchase land for a school in the San Antonio area, noting that the district could have saved itself a lot of trouble if it had not sold off school land near Klein Park decades ago.
Mountain View also had a school north of the Monta Loma neighborhood, near the Costco, that could have been a useful resource today, given that the city plans to build nearly 10,000 housing units in the North Bayshore area. Coladonato said the district should consider asking voters for a small bond to finance construction instead of selling off district land.
"I'm reluctant to be on the board that sells another site," he said.
Some nearby residents have criticized the board for considering using district-owned land at Cooper Park since the teacher-housing idea was first proposed in 2016, saying it sacrifices valuable open space at the center of a single-family residential neighborhood and could exacerbate clogged commute traffic along Grant Road.
But Wheeler said Cooper Park itself --
the playground on city-owned land on the small southern end of the site -- would go untouched, and that the district is only seeking to develop the 9.5 acres of district land that includes the athletic fields and school facilities currently leased out to Action Day Primary Plus, a private preschool and day care facility. Throughout the feasibility study, the district-owned land is referred to as the former Cooper School to distinguish it from the community park.
"Cooper Park is not going to be affected, it's going to be the Action Day Nursery and the land next to it that's just vacant," she said, apparently referring to the athletic fields. "So the neighbors over there don't need to worry about their park being affected."
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the district needs to consider its bonding capacity if board members decide to ask voters to finance the project, and that funding for a below-market-rate project may also be available from the city. The earliest the district could seek out a developer for the project would be the start of next year, he said.
Earlier in the meeting, Dutra warned that taking affordable housing funds from city, county or state agencies can backfire because of strict income guidelines that could exclued higher-earning teachers. He recalled one housing project in Los Angeles that was intended for teachers, but ended up only housing classified staff because none of the teachers had incomes that qualified.
"It's very important to understand when you start taking government money, there are restrictions that come with it," Dutra said. "There is a distinction between affordable housing and what we call the 'missing middle' housing."