The Fight to Keep Teachers in Tech Hubs From Being Priced Out

Rizi Manzon, a high school culinary arts teacher, lives in an apartment complex owned by his employer, the Santa Clara Unified School District.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Rizi Manzon lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, in a modest-looking neighborhood of garden apartments and one-story houses on small lots. His own home is five minutes from Apple’s headquarters in what is, by some measures, the most expensive housing market in the country. Average rent in Santa Clara County is over $3,500.

If Mr. Manzon, a culinary arts teacher at a nearby high school, had to pay market rates for his one-bedroom apartment, housing costs would eat up 75 percent of his $65,000 salary, he estimated.

Luckily for him, he pays just $1,450 per month.

Mr. Manzon, 38, is getting this bargain only because his employer, the Santa Clara Unified School District, owns his apartment complex and rents to its teachers at below-market rates. It is an uncommon arrangement — employer as landlord — that is starting to catch on elsewhere as school employees say they cannot afford to live comfortably in regions awash in tech dollars.

And it is just one of several radical solutions for struggling educators in the nation’s economic boom towns. From San Francisco to Seattle to Denver to Los Angeles, some are spending four hours per day commuting, or have relied on charitable funding for mortgage assistance. While several districts have tried to make it easier for teachers to live where they work, their efforts are not always welcomed by local homeowners, opening up new debates over gentrification and what obligations the expanding tech sector has to the cities that host its offices.

The Santa Clara apartments are considered a model by school district officials in San Jose, the large city a few miles southeast. The San Jose Unified School District has its own plan: raze aging school buildings, send their students to new facilities, and turn that land into affordable rental housing for at least 300 teachers and school workers.

But in a city that is rolling out the red carpet for Google employees — the City Council recently voted to approve a major land sale to the tech giant — the teacher housing idea has drawn a backlash.

Some parents in Almaden Valley, a suburban-style enclave on the outskirts of San Jose, are not eager to see two of their schools, Leland High School and Bret Harte Middle School, relocated about two miles away in order to build affordable rental housing for educators.

“They are both very, very high-end schools” with lots of parental involvement, said Greg Braley, a leader of the opposition to the district’s proposal and a resident of the neighborhood. “Honestly, the schools are so good, people pay a premium to live in this area.”

Mr. Braley works in finance and sends his own 9-year-old daughter to private school, but said she may attend public school in the future. Rather than disrupting a high-achieving community, he argued, it would make more sense to provide teachers with a housing allowance of some kind — something the district says it cannot afford to do.

Hundreds flocked to an October community meeting to vent their frustration with the district’s plan, and over 6,000 people have signed an online petition, started by Mr. Braley, against it. “Low-income housing doesn’t belong in Almaden,” one resident commented on the petition. “This would devalue home prices in the area significantly,” wrote another.

The school district, with 30,000 students, is losing one out of every seven teachers each spring. Some high-need students, like those with disabilities, are being taught by long-term substitutes or contractors. Like many other districts across the country with teacher shortages, it has begun recruiting educators from the developing world.

Starting salaries for teachers here range between $55,000 and $79,000. That kind of money does not go far in an area where the median home price is over $1 million, and the district cannot easily raise compensation to account for housing costs. Despite being one of the nation’s richest states, California’s education spending, about $11,000 per student, was slightly below the national average in 2016. Land is the most valuable asset the district has.

District-owned housing would have interested Jesse Escobar, 33, an academic counselor at a middle school in San Jose. He and his girlfriend, Shana Riehart, a high school teacher, were priced out of town and moved 25 miles away to Hayward, Calif. Ms. Riehart quit her job to take a position closer to their new home. Traffic means Mr. Escobar’s commute sometimes takes an hour and 45 minutes each way. He said it had been hurtful to hear parents oppose the housing plan for educators.

“Instead of saying teachers, if you had said engineers from Google or doctors from Kaiser, would the tone have been different?” Mr. Escobar asked. “Families trust us with their kids from 8 to 3 every day. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be the case that they would trust us in their communities.”

Supporters of the housing plan have a long fight ahead. On Election Day, a ballot initiative to approve a city bond that could have helped pay for the proposal fell just short of passing. The plan now needs the approval of the district board of education, and eventually, a property tax assessment would have to pass at the ballot box. It could be a yearslong process, and opponents warn it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Stephen McMahon, the district’s deputy superintendent, blamed much of the neighborhood opposition on the stigma against affordable housing.

Standing outside of Leland High School, one of the campuses that could be torn down in the proposal, Mr. McMahon said, “They’re closing their eyes and seeing a 10-story apartment complex with people smoking pot on the doorsteps. That’s not at all what we discussed doing out here.”

Mr. McMahon said that each of the proposed housing sites would match existing housing stock: high-rise apartments downtown; single-family houses in Almaden Valley. He acknowledged that the school district lacked expertise in real estate, but said partner organizations would be brought on to help.

“This isn’t the work we want to do,” Mr. McMahon said. “We have to do the housing thing because not being able to get employees compromises everything we want to do with our instruction and learning.”

Other school districts, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and some in Colorado and North Carolina are trying similar solutions. In Santa Clara, the district-owned apartment where Mr. Manzon lives has a long waiting list of teachers. But even that is not a full solution.

Mr. Manzon, a former chef, will have to leave his home in three years, because each resident is allowed to stay in the district apartments only seven years. He is considering leaving teaching — he has received higher-paying offers to work as an executive chef — or moving to Nevada, where much of his family has relocated.

There, “my brother was able to purchase a home on a Honda mechanic’s salary,” he said.

Teachers who can come up with at least half of a down payment can turn to Landed, a start-up that helps educators buy homes.

Holly Gonzalez, 34, a kindergarten teacher in East San Jose, and her husband, Daniel, a school district I.T. specialist, were able to buy a three-bedroom apartment for $610,000 this summer with help from their parents and from Landed. When they sell the home, they will owe Landed 25 percent of any gain in its value. The company is financed partly by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Mark Zuckerberg’s charitable arm.

Ms. Gonzalez, who has two sons, said that she and her husband were grateful, but that they had given up a lot, like a backyard. “To be willing to pay what we paid for this? You have to be desperate,” she said.

They remain anxious about their economic future, especially since San Jose’s land sale to Google, which the City Council approved in December over the shouts of anti-gentrification activists, and is expected to bring in 20,000 mostly high-income tech jobs.

Gentrification, Ms. Gonzalez said, could push out even more low-income families in her district, and declining school enrollment could mean layoffs for teachers.

Supporters of the Google deal, like Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose, say the company will help finance affordable housing. As part of the agreement, any new apartment buildings constructed near the campus will set aside a quarter of the units as affordable.

Mr. Liccardo said it was unfortunate that anxiety about closing schools had gotten mixed up with the debate over cost of living in the city. But he projected that within a few years, some of the same parents who opposed San Jose Unified’s plan for teachers would grasp the importance of affordable housing.

“When people see their own children can no longer afford to live in the community” as young adults, he said, “it will change.”

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