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Three school districts consider collectively creating staff housing

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The board from the Cupertino Union School District, above, Fremont Union High School District and Sunnyvale School District held a joint meeting Nov. 7 to discuss the possibility of collectively providing employee housing.

Three local school districts are looking to band together to help address the problem teachers and school staff face in finding affordable housing.

The boards from the Cupertino Union School District, Fremont Union High School District and Sunnyvale School District held a joint meeting Nov. 7 to discuss the possibility of collectively providing employee housing.

Cupertino Union School District includes Montclaire Elementary School in Los Altos. Fremont Union High School District includes Homestead High School, which serves some Los Altos students.

The districts are considering forming a joint powers authority (JPA) to tackle the issue of affordable workforce housing. Under California law, public agencies can join together through a JPA to exercise common powers.

Fremont Superintendent Polly Bove presented data at the meeting on how high rental rates affect school employees. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, families that spend more than 30% of their income on housing are cost-burdened.

Across the three districts, the average monthly salary for a first-year teacher is $5,626, 30% of which is $1,689. According to the data Bove presented, the prevailing rent for a roughly 900-square-foot studio in Cupertino, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara is $1,895, $1,995 and $1,800, respectively.

“It’s not a big surprise that people are commuting, and commuting long distances, to come to work,” Bove said at the meeting.

High housing costs have made it increasingly difficult to hire and retain teachers, Bove said. In recent years, as housing prices have risen, teacher housing has become a hot topic and school districts throughout the region have considered ways to confront the problem.

One local proposal spearheaded by Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian involves building 90-120 units of teacher housing on a site in Palo Alto. Five local school districts have signed on to be part of the project: Los Altos, Mountain View Los Altos Union, Mountain View Whisman, Palo Alto Unified and Foothill-De Anza Community College.

A possible plan

At last week’s joint meeting, the three boards heard about one potential strategy to create housing for school employees. Three men with experience working on financing for municipal projects presented an approach that would rely on external funding, instead of money from the school districts or tax-payers.

The plan takes advantage of the Teacher Housing Act of 2016. The state law allows teacher housing projects to use the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which permits private investors in affordable rental housing projects to receive federal income tax credits.

However, housing developed under the state law must be equally available to school employees regardless of the district they work for. According to Steven Gortler, one of the presenters at the meeting and an independent registered municipal adviser, because districts can’t reserve space for their own teachers, there is an incentive problem that dissuades districts from using the act.

“Why would you go to the trouble of building teacher housing … if you couldn’t even assure your own teachers of living there?” Gortler said. “My guess is that’s the reason why no school districts since the passage of the act in 2016 have actually done anything.”

To solve the problem, Gortler and his team are arguing school districts should form JPAs and collectively develop multiple teacher housing projects scattered throughout the districts’ area.

“There will be enough units that it’s likely that at least some of your teachers, perhaps many, will have the opportunity to live there,” Gortler said.

After the presentation, board members and superintendents asked questions about the details of the plan. In an interview, Bove said that until the boards formally weigh in, it is hard to characterize the likelihood that the school districts will pursue this strategy. Cupertino Superintendent Craig Baker agreed, adding that there would be multiple steps before any particular proposal was picked.

“There will be a lot of things on the table for a JPA as an organization to talk about, but since we haven’t formed, we haven’t had any of those discussions,” Baker said. “There’s a lot of research we have to do before we commit to any one plan.”

Although forming a JPA isn’t necessary to move forward with a housing project, Baker said the benefit is that the three districts will be forming a long-lasting relationship to work as a unit on a variety of affordability issues.

Bove and Baker both said the districts could work to address issues beyond housing, such as affordable child care or transit costs.

“We shouldn’t limit ourselves,” Bove said. “Housing is critical, but it’s definitely not the only big bill our staff faces.”

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