Erika Mahoney, KAZU Public Radio
The Santa Cruz area is among a handful of California school districts considering creative solutions to a teacher shortage, including building affordable housing on school district property to keep their teachers from leaving.
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.
Just last month, Santa Cruz City Schools took their exploration one step forward. The district is now looking for an architect to start designing workforce housing. It already has designated 2.5 acres just behind the Natural Bridges High School campus in Santa Cruz for the project.
A recent study by USA Today ranks Santa Cruz as the least affordable city in the nation for teachers. The study analyzed teachers’ pay and the cost of living in nearly 300 metro areas. It found that experienced Santa Cruz teachers make around $62,620 (before taxes), but that 66% of their salary goes to rent. San Jose and San Francisco ranked as the second and third least affordable places.
California’s teacher shortage has been worsening since 2015, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy nonprofit.
Elle Wiley, a math teacher for Santa Cruz City Schools, doesn’t have it as bad as some other teachers in the Santa Cruz area. She says about 40 percent of her monthly paycheck goes toward housing. Still, she says that is unsustainable.
Typically, financial experts recommend spending no more than 30 percent of your income on rent or housing costs. The median rent in the city of Santa Cruz and San Jose is around $3,500 a month. It’s around $4,580 in San Francisco.
“Every year I have the same question to myself, am I going to be here this year,” said Wiley, who teaches at Soquel High School east of Santa Cruz. “Am I going to teach here next year?”
Wiley’s classroom is lined with twinkling lights. A garland of fall leaves hangs from the whiteboard and math visuals cover the walls. She teaches Integrated Math, a freshman-level course, and buys many of her classroom decorations and supplies herself. She says it’s just one more thing to pay for at the beginning of each school year.
“I can tell you, I lived off of leftovers that students gave me for food for a couple weeks this year. Thankfully, I have amazing parents, and they brought some meals for me,” Wiley said while sitting in her classroom.
When Wiley was hired in 2016, she had to take out a loan to move from her hometown, Chico, Calif. Wiley struggled for months trying to find somewhere she could afford to live close to work and somewhere she could have her only companion, her husky Willow. She started and ended that first year sleeping on her aunt’s couch.
“It wasn't my personal space, so it was hard to have my paperwork laid out in their living room,” she said about living with her aunt. “So I didn't do much work outside of school, so I stayed at school until super late hours getting all my work completed,” said Wiley.
Fast forward and she now rents a room in a co-worker’s house. But Wiley says she’s going to have to move soon. Her co-worker recently married and is planning to start a family. Wiley is running out of options. She’s thinking about moving back home to Chico.
“I’m just so tired, I’m giving up. I feel like giving up. 100 percent. I love the school. I love my colleagues, I love my administration, I love my district office. I just personally cannot keep fighting for a place to live,” Wiley said.
She would jump into teacher housing in a heartbeat. But she isn’t sure her district’s project will be ready by the time she needs it.
“Oh wow, my plan would be completely turned around because that's my number one issue, … not having the secure place for next year. And if it does happen next year, I don't even know. 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,” Wiley said.
Just north of Santa Cruz, the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District is also working to get its teacher housing project approved. The district plans to turn a former elementary school into apartments but there’s no set date for groundbreaking yet. First, Santa Cruz County supervisors must approve a zoning change to allow for housing.
Dr. Laurie Bruton, superintendent of San Lorenzo schools, walks up to the elementary school in Boulder Creek. “And you can see it’s really a beautiful campus,” said Bruton.
Trees and plants dot the schoolyard, which spans 28 acres.
“So a lot of the plants and all of those things were put in by teachers, maintained by teachers. Not only flowers, but there were vegetable gardens here.”
Dr. Laurie Bruton, superintendent of San Lorenzo Valley Unified, stands in front of the district’s former elementary school. The plan is to turn the school into 33 below-market apartments.Krista Almanzan / KAZU
The school has been closed for 17 years. Bruton says the plan is to turn the classrooms into 33 below-market apartments. The school is designed into clusters of buildings that already look like condos.
“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 configuration that you can have a grill and some patio furniture out on,” Bruton said.
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 you're 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 into the school,” she said.
San Mateo Community College District and Santa Clara Unified School District built employee housing in the early 2000s. Now, school districts have a state law on their side. Passed in 2016, it allows districts to put teacher housing on district owned property. A law passed the following year establishes tax exemptions for teacher housing on district owned land.
Billy Riggs, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Management, studies economics, housing and smart transportation. He 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.
“It allows housing in a location we never thought about before and that's phenomenal. We should do more of that,” said Riggs.
Krista Almanzan contributed to this report.