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Santa Cruz, The Least Affordable Place For Teachers, Is Trying To Make It More Livable

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At least three of 10 school districts in Santa Cruz County are exploring the option of building below-market homes for teachers and staff on school district property. In neighboring Monterey County, at least two districts out of 34 are also looking into the idea.

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Speaker 1: 00:01 California schools don't have enough teachers and a big reason why is the cost of housing a growing number of school districts across the state are considering a radical solution building their own teacher housing on school district land. Erika Mahoney reports from member station, K a, Z U, and Monterey. Her story is part of our California dream. Collaboration's look at solutions to some of the state's problems.

Speaker 2: 00:29 L Wiley's classroom is lined with twinkle lights. Math pictures cover the walls. She teaches integrated math one at Soquel high school East of Santa Cruz and she buys most of these classroom supplies herself. She says it's just one more thing to pay for each school year. I can tell you I lived off of leftovers that students gave me for food for a couple weeks this year. What's really draining her bank account is the cost of rent. About 40% of her monthly paycheck goes toward housing every year. I have the same question to myself. Am I going to be here this year? Am I going to teach here next year? When Wiley was hired in 2016 she spent part of that year sleeping on a couch. She struggled for months to find somewhere affordable to live. Being a dog owner didn't help fast forward. And she now rents a room in a coworker's house, but Wiley says she's going to have to move soon and she's running out of options.

Speaker 2: 01:27 She's thinking about moving back home to Chico. I feel like giving up 100%. I love the school. I love my colleagues. I love my administration. I love my district office. Um, I just personally cannot keep fighting for a place to live. A recent study by USA today ranked Santa Cruz as the least affordable city in the U S for teachers, San Jose and San Francisco ranked as the second and third least affordable places to help some California school districts are building their own housing for teachers. A state law passed in 2016 makes it easier by allowing districts to put teacher housing on district owned property at a former elementary school North of Santa Cruz. Dr Lori Bruton walks upstairs that overlook a 28 acre school yard. And you could see it's really a beautiful campus. Bruton is superintendent of the San Lorenzo Valley unified school district. She says this elementary school has been closed for 17 years now.

Speaker 2: 02:31 The plan is to turn the classrooms into 33 below market apartments for teachers. The classrooms are bright and there's a lot of greenery around and there's a lot of flat space so you can see like this is a great patio right here at the entrance of this classroom. The project is estimated to cost the district nearly $10 million. Bruton hopes the investment will help hire and keep teachers around and she says that will ultimately help the students. If a young teacher and you raise a family in this area and your kids go to school here, that's a whole different level of ownership to the community, to the school. It allows housing in a location. We never thought about it before and that's phenomenal. We should do more of that. Billy Riggs is a professor at the university of San Francisco school of management essentially have people traveling less.

Speaker 2: 03:22 There is an environmental co-benefit there that cannot be dismissed. Rigs would like to see California embrace workforce housing for all kinds of professions, but he says that 2016 teacher housing act is a step in the right direction. We should allow more housing in places where people work. San Mateo community college and Santa Clara unified have already built employee housing to name a few. Now, school districts across the state are exploring the option including where L Y Wiley teaches Santa Cruz city schools. She says she would move into teacher housing in a heartbeat, but doubts that solution will be available anytime soon. I just know in my head I can't even think about it because I know it's not going to happen so I can't get my dreams up like that, but just last month, Santa Cruz city schools took their exploration one step forward. It's now in the process of hiring an architect to start making plans for their teacher housing just behind the natural bridges high school campus.

Speaker 2: 04:23 Joining me as Erica Mahoney of station K ACU reporting for the California dream project and Erica, welcome. Thank you so much. Now was it situations like the one teacher L Wiley found herself in sleeping on somebody's sofa that prompted state legislators to pass the new law that allows schools to use their property for housing? Absolutely. The law, SB 1413 points out that stable housing for teachers is crucial to the overall success of California schools. It also nods to the States teacher shortage, which has only grown worse in recent years. The lack of affordable housing not only affects the teachers who are struggling to make ends meet like Al Wiley, but also the students in terms of teacher turnover when they don't have that familiar face to return to at the beginning of the school year. That can be really difficult. Now I know San Diego teachers salaries are on average only half of what it would take to afford to buy a house here.

Speaker 2: 05:18 So is this a problem all across the state? It is, but it's worse in certain parts like coastal or Metro areas. The Bay area is especially expensive. As I mentioned in the story. A recent study by USA today ranks the best and worst places for teachers to live in, and California cities took the top three worst spots. That was for Santa Cruz, then San Jose and then San Francisco. Well, for this idea to make a difference, school districts must own a lot of land that they're not using. And is that the case? Yeah, I mean the law allows school districts to build housing on district owned property, so they would need some land to do that. Here in Monterey, in the Monterey Bay area, some school districts have said that they're rich in land. Also, I think there's an opportunity to be creative. For example, the San Lorenzo Valley unified school district in Santa Cruz County, they're turning an old elementary school into teacher housing, so they don't necessarily have to build from the ground up.

Speaker 1: 06:14 About how much below market do these districts hope the school housing goes for

Speaker 2: 06:19 the San Lorenzo Valley unified school district is looking at charging about 70% of market value. So for a one bedroom market rate is roughly 1700 a month, so they'd charge about $1,200 for a two bedroom market rate is around $2,400 and so they would charge about 1700

Speaker 1: 06:36 well here in San Diego school board trustees have been talking about using some of the space in its district headquarters complex to build a teachers' village and that's just one of the school properties that they're looking at, but the construction will of course cost money. What are the school districts in your report? Where are they getting their money to build these units?

Speaker 2: 06:58 Yeah, I can speak to how San Lorenzo Valley unified plans to cover the expense turning their old elementary school into 33 below market apartments is estimated to cost around $10 million. The school plans to essentially take out a loan which will eventually be paid off from charging rent and will eventually turn into a revenue stream for the district. Now on top of that, the district will also explore philanthropic options including reaching out to Apple. You know that big headline this week was that Apple plans to commit two point $5 billion to help address the state's housing affordability crisis, and so the district is actually planning to reach out to the company.

Speaker 1: 07:34 In your report, you mentioned that school districts in Santa Clara and San Mateo had already provided some housing to their teachers. How is that working out?

Speaker 2: 07:44 So these districts build their projects in the early two thousands before the state law. That essentially streamlines the process for the project. In San Mateo, rents are between $875 to 1100 per month for a one bedroom and tenants do have a cap on how long they can stay there. It's up to seven years. For the Santa Clara unified school district. There is a waiting list and actually in 2015 the district started raising rents to better match market rates.

Speaker 1: 08:11 Now you spoke with a school of management professor who said he'd like to see more professional complexes include housing for employees. Did he give you any idea of how that might work or if there are any examples of that? Around the country.

Speaker 2: 08:27 Yeah, so Billy rigs teaches at the university of San Francisco. He's a teacher himself still. He'd like to see workforce housing for all kinds of industries in the future here, we actually have a few local examples of this in Monterey County and Santa Cruz County. Agriculture is one of our top industries and a growing number of ag companies are building housing for their employees

Speaker 1: 08:47 here in San Diego. The best estimate on a time frame for getting teacher housing up and running is three to five years. Is that what Santa and other districts are

Speaker 2: 08:56 looking at too? Yes, that's about right. There are a lot of steps that these districts have to go through. Even though they now have this state law on their side, these projects often required. We're working with their local governments to approve zoning changes. Then the districts must complete environmental studies and then they get to work with the architect and the developer. Some districts here are even hesitant to say when their projects are expected to open because it is often a long process. I've been speaking with Erica Mahoney of stationK , a, Z. U. She's been reporting for the California dream project, and Erica, thank you so much. Thank you.

Speaker 3: 09:41 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.