Teachers lament housing market

teacher housing
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
John Payne, who teaches at Mountain View High School, commutes from Gilroy every day because that’s where he could afford to buy a home.

Local teachers, administrators and government officials came together at Mountain View High last week to hear the stories of teachers struggling to find housing.

Gina Dunsmore, a physics teacher at Mountain View High School, said she commuted for seven years from Aptos. Now, she doesn’t take Highway 17 to work every day because she got an apartment in Milpitas, but she is going into debt every month in order to continue teaching and living in the area.

“Even though I love the Bay Area and I would love to stay here, I’m often looking at other options to move out of the area,” she said.

Dunsmore is among the many teachers who are reconsidering their decision to work in the Bay Area because they’re unable to find affordable housing near work.

Nicole Higley, a Japanese teacher at Mountain View High, said she was hired to teach 40 percent time, which didn’t pay her enough to pay her rent. So she worked evenings at Trader Joe’s, 5 p.m. to midnight. She’s found a different part-time job now to supplement her teaching income, working at the adult education center 6-9 p.m. four days a week.

“It's such a wonderful, beautiful place to live, but there is a barrier to live here and work here,” Higley said.

The teacher housing forum, hosted by the activist groups and Bay Area Forward, comes at a time when Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian is spearheading a project to build affordable teacher housing in Palo Alto in partnership with the county, the city and five local school districts.

The boards of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and the Los Altos School District have directed their respective administrations to look for funding for the project. If completed, the project could provide 60-120 housing units – not enough to solve the teacher housing crisis, but a step Simitian said could pave the way for future, similar projects. Simitian said that when he talks about this idea, he often hears people say it’s a “nice” thing to do. He said it’s not a nice thing, it’s a necessary endeavor.

“It’s not a philanthropic gesture, it’s a matter of necessity in terms of the future of our communities,” he said. “Our communities are strong because our schools are strong. Our schools are only strong if we can attract and retain the best and the brightest.”

John Payne, another teacher at Mountain View High who has coached football at both Mountain View and Los Altos highs, commutes from Gilroy because that’s where he and his wife could afford to buy a house. He leaves home at 5:15 a.m. to teach zero period. On the way home, the drive takes him an hour and a half to two hours. He was the athletic director for three years, which meant he didn’t see his kids until Saturday morning because he got home at 9 p.m. on weeknights. He said he wishes he could be more involved in the district – he’s had a student who’s been asking him to come to her play on Friday nights for four years, but if he’s not coaching a Friday-night football game, he has to get on the road to return home to his family.

A way forward

The housing forum featured guest speakers who discussed a way forward for workforce housing. The panelists addressed the “missing middle,” people who make too much to qualify for affordable housing but too little to actually afford a home.

Alexandra Vondeling, an architect at Opticos Design, said there’s also a “missing middle” in terms of types of housing. When people picture kinds of housing, she said, they think of 100-unit apartment complexes or single-family homes, but the housing in between those extremes, two- to 10-unit apartment buildings, can fit well into quiet neighborhoods without changing the atmosphere.

“We can really make room for people who need to be here and create great communities,” said Elaine Uang, an architect at Van Meter Williams Pollack. “It doesn’t have to be ugly, and we shouldn’t let the examples that scare us instill fear in the rest of the community that we can’t do it.”

Uang contended that it’s possible to build housing that works for the community and the people who live there, but “some of the rules have to change.” Some cities have strict zoning laws that limit multifamily housing.

Each of the panelists said a variety of options are needed for workforce housing. Some teachers want to rent, some want to buy. Some would be happy with renting a bedroom in someone’s home, others need a four-bedroom house to accommodate their family. And speakers were clear that when they say “teacher housing,” they mean housing for anyone who works for the schools, from technology specialists to custodians, bus drivers, teachers and administrators.

“We live far, and we really want to be here and we really want to work here,” said David Campbell, who teaches Spanish at Mountain View High. “You want us to live here, too. We are very educated people, and we have dedicated our lives to serving your children and you.”

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