Faced with one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation, local teachers say they are hanging on by a thread and wondering whether it's worth it to work in the Bay Area.
While kids played outside on a recent sunny afternoon, teachers in Mountain View and Los Altos schools were in the Almond Elementary School library sharing personal stories of tight budgets, long commutes and doubts about the future. Buying a home with a yard, to them, felt like a goal utterly out of reach on a teachers' salary.
"I'll definitely be moving if I cannot buy a home in the next five years," said Los Altos High teacher Megan Blach. "I do want to stay here, but it's not worth it at the end of the day."
Others described how they grew up in the South Bay at a time when middle-class families could afford real estate at least within driving distance of work, and lamented that the same opportunity won't be available to anyone who isn't making well above $100,000 -- unless they get a boost from wealthy parents.
"It's amazing to look at the childhood home that my mom lives in, that I always thought I would have, to know that's not a possibility," said Natalie Cannon, a sixth-grade teacher at Santa Rita Elementary.
Teachers shared similar stories throughout the Peninsula Teacher Town Hall event, hosted by Bay Area Forward and an initiative called Support Teacher Housing on Tuesday, March 27. The meeting marks the latest in a regional campaign to shore up community support and political will for housing affordable to middle-income families.
At the core of the problem is that middle-class families making between 80 percent and 120 percent of the area's median income have few options for renting and buying homes with anything less than an hour-long commute each way. A family of four earning $90,000 a year, for example, makes too much to qualify for deed-restricted affordable housing units on the market, but doesn't make nearly enough to save for a down payment after paying for expenses like food, rent and health care.
The result is that middle-income residents like teachers and social workers, who play an essential role in the community, are on the ropes, and face either living paycheck to paycheck or leaving the area entirely, said Sarah Chaffin, founder of the Support Teacher Housing initiative. She argues that tax credits incentivize the creation of affordable housing, and big developers are happy to reap the benefits of market-rate rental costs, but there's nothing out there for teachers and what she calls the "missing middle."
"There's this whole class of people who make too much money to qualify for low-income housing but not enough money to ever buy a home in this area," Chaffin told the Voice after the meeting. "I'm trying to build as many allies as possible to raise awareness for housing and the missing middle."
Patricia Hsuan, an art teacher at Blach Intermediate and Egan Junior High schools, told the crowd that the housing crunch affects both her and her students. She recalled an architecture assignment in class where a student mistook a living room design for a bedroom, and later learned it was because the child was sleeping in a living room.
Hsuan could sympathize -- she said she slept on her couch for four years so her son could have the only bedroom in their apartment. She was able to buy a house after receiving financial help from her mother, but the monthly payments are huge and eat up a large portion of her paycheck each month.
"The mortgage is pretty scary, half of my salary, and I have a child to feed too," she said.
Even teachers in the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, who are among the most well-paid in the state with an average salary of nearly $130,000, say they are struggling. District Teachers' Association president Dave Campbell said a recent survey found 38 percent of teachers commute more than 30 minutes to get to work, 21 percent spend well over one-third of their paycheck on rent, and 45 percent of the teaching staff is renting a home.
"If our employees are struggling to make ends meet and struggling to purchase homes, then for the rest of the teachers it's got to be worse," he said.
Campbell said many teachers in the district are facing a frustrating situation: they spent tons of time and money earning master's degrees and even doctoral degrees and are experts in their fields -- whether it be math or science -- and yet their salaries make it difficult to buy a home in the area. Some opt to buy in a more affordable community like Gilroy or Concord and endure the long commute, he said, but others decide it's just not worth it and either move away or change careers.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember, Campbell said, is that half of the district's teachers devote at least 10 hours to adjunct duty each week, such as coaching or chaperoning dances, and pour hours and hours into grading. Throw a long commute into the mix and there's simply no time left to do anything else, which he said is enough to dissuade strong teaching candidates from joining the district.
Plenty of high-cost housing
The city of Mountain View, like several Santa Clara County cities, has done a good job paving the way for developers to build new market-rate housing projects. The latest update on the city's housing development, reviewed by the Environmental Planning Commission last month, shows that the city issued permits for 2,328 homes over the last three years. Nearly 90 percent of these new units are going for market-rate, which is considered affordable to those making at least 120 percent of the region's median income -- or about $136,000 for a family of four.
When weighed against the city's housing needs, through a process called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), Mountain View is trouncing its goals for creating market-rate housing, nearly doubling the units needed through 2022 in three short years.
But virtually no housing units have been added to the market that are affordable to lower-income families, particularly the moderate income bracket that many teachers fall under. The city's RHNA allocation, which serves as an important benchmark for housing needs relative to job and population growth in the region, calls on the city to issue permits for 527 moderate-income housing units between 2014 and 2022. The city granted zero permits for moderate-income housing from 2015 through 2017.
Mountain View may be doing its part to solve the housing shortage in the region, but it doesn't tell the whole story, said planning commissioner Robert Cox. He said affordability remains a huge problem for middle-income families, and that it feels like an intractable problem without some kind of massive region-wide commitment to subsidize housing or fix the imbalance between job and housing growth.
"You'd have to get the nine-county Bay Area to agree to put a moratorium on offices, because if it doesn't happen in one city, it'll happen in another one," he said. "We always say it's a regional problem -- that's the kind of regional solution it would take."
Steve Levy, a local economist and a panelist at the town hall meeting, told teachers that they are a part of a growing contingent of people who really ought to be called the "forgotten middle," disregarded by local policymakers who create the road map for future development. He said teachers need to get politically involved, and rally behind strategies that reserve housing units for middle-income families and make it easier for developers to put lower-cost housing on the market.
"Absolutely nobody is thinking about the stories you told," Levy said.
For Chaffin, the battle to build affordable housing for teachers is personal. She owns a small piece of property in San Jose, just under one-third of an acre, and last year approached the city of San Jose with a proposal to construct 16 affordable units reserved specifically for local teachers. She said she figured it would be a slam-dunk proposal that would glide through the planning process, given that she owned the land and was prepared to finance the whole project.
The city's planning staff recommended against the proposal, which would have required a general plan amendment, arguing that it would be a blow to the city's already-anemic commercial land-use zoning. Despite overwhelming support from teachers and housing advocates, the San Jose City Council shot down the proposal in August last year.
Rebuffed but not discouraged, Chaffin said her effort to build housing on her property revealed that the need for teacher housing ran deep, and that a huge number of teachers and community members were prepared to rally behind the cause. More than 1,000 people were on her mailing list, she recalled, and hundreds were ready to testify on her behalf. She launched the Support Teacher Housing initiative shortly after, and has since hosted three teacher town hall events like the one at Almond last month.
"I realized that I have to keep going, that this is bigger than my project," she said.
Small solutions for a big problem
None of the panelists and attendees at the March 27 meeting came armed with a single solution to help teachers afford a home, instead floating a medley of ideas that might at least take the edge off the housing struggle.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who moderated the event, pointed to his recent effort to create a teacher housing project on county-owned land in Palo Alto. The 1.5-acre site could support between 60 to 120 units, according to his initial pitch, and could prove to be a vital resource for North County school districts struggling with teacher recruitment and retention each year.
The Mountain View Whisman School District is also exploring ways to leverage publicly owned land in Mountain View in order to build workforce housing, but recently backed off an idea to develop district-owned land at Cooper Park following intense opposition from nearby residents. Simitian told the Voice that the school district is exploring another option for teacher housing in Mountain View but declined to name the location. Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph confirmed that district staff had a new location in mind, but also declined to reveal where it is.
Karen Parolek, a panelist at the town hall and an urban design consultant, said the solution may lie in housing growth that strikes a balance between detached single-family homes and tall stack-and-pack apartments. Existing, historic neighborhoods in suburban Bay Area cities have lots of options for housing growth without a jarring shift in the character of the neighborhood, with modest two-story structures that can support more families in a smaller area. A great deal of the existing affordable housing options in the region are available in buildings with eight units or less, she said, but recent development seems to cast the idea of mid-sized housing projects aside.
Other panelists and teachers suggested that new startup companies like Landed, which creates a pool of money to help teachers afford a down payment in exchange for equity in the home, could prove to be a useful resource for teachers looking to buy a home. Campbell said he knows of a few teachers who had some traction with Landed, but ceding a portion of the home's equity is not exactly ideal.
"We're not looking to flip houses or anything ... but you're not going to get a good chunk of it, which has to go to the people who fronted the money," he said.
Teacher housing projects like the one Simitian proposed would also help out, Campbell said, but it feels a little like a strategy that only picks around the edges of a much larger problem.
"It's basically a drop in the bucket," he said.
Despite it being a problem with no clear solution, Chaffin said she wants to send a message to city and county officials, along with major employers in the region, that more needs to be done to keep teachers and other middle-income earners in the community. Growing up dyslexic, she recalled how much it meant to her that teachers were able to stick around outside of school hours to help her, and said it's difficult to imagine losing that kind of support because teachers can't afford to live here.
"The most important learning goes on outside the classroom, and when people are commuting two hours or living four teachers to an apartment, they can't help kids the way they helped me," she said. "What kind of a society are we to allow this to happen?"