Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission approves educator housing recommendation

Paolo Harris Paz/Staff

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On Thursday, Berkeley’s Housing Advisory Commission voted unanimously to approve a recommendation to City Council that would propose a plan to allocate $150,000 to the Berkeley Unified School District for the initial stages of predevelopment and planning to create educator housing.

Berkeley school district Director Julie Sinai stated that housing in Berkeley is unaffordable for district employees, as entry-level teachers earn $40,000 annually, and the highest-paid educators earn $90,000, while housing is approximately $3,000 a month. Some local school district teachers have to commute for hours or take on multiple jobs to make ends meet, according to Berkeley High School teacher and member of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers executive board Alexander Day.

“The uncertainty of current and future housing can lead people to question the viability of being an educator in this time and place,” Day said during the Thursday meeting. “Without robust and sustained investment in BUSD employee housing and other solutions, how can we expect to recruit and maintain a staff of educators that is diverse, multigenerational and well trained?”

Under this recommendation, the school district will work with Berkeley Housing Opportunities for Municipal Employees, or BeHome, to evaluate land and plan, finance, develop and manage new educator housing. The housing project is feasible because it will be financed in part by tax credits, rent and district land, according to BeHome founder David Mayer.

According to Berkeley school district Executive Director of Facilities John Calise, the district evaluated and identified four potential locations for educator housing, including the field space associated with West Campus on University Avenue, a maintenance facility on Oregon Street, the Berkeley Adult School parking lot on San Pablo Avenue and the Berkeley High School tennis courts on Milvia Street.

Housing Advisory Commissioner Thomas Lord pointed out that one of the sites being considered is a lower-income area that is rapidly gentrifying.

“There is a danger here that we risk setting up the interests of the district or the teachers against the other residents of Berkeley,” Lord said during the meeting. “I don’t want either the message to be or the legal structure to be that we’re saying that … somehow we’re not supporting the expansion and sustenance of those (lower-income) communities.”

Commissioner Leah Simon-Weisberg added that the housing units should be family-friendly, as a large number of district teachers have families.

Both Weisberg and vice chair of the Housing Advisory Committee Marian Wolfe expressed concerns about how having housing tied to a person’s employment would affect the educators.

“Two years ago, I had talked to some of the union staff at Malcolm X (Elementary School), and they were uninterested in having teacher housing because of this fear of how do you go on strike if they can evict you from their house,” Weisberg said during the meeting.

The city of Berkeley has an annual revenue of about $135 million, so investing $150,000 is just a “drop in the bucket,” according to Housing Advisory Commission chair Igor Tregub.

Commissioner Darrell Owens supported the educator housing but said he also believes city workers in general need to be housed. Owens added that in this project, it is important to maximize density and create as many units as possible while only using one or two of the sites.

Housing Advisory Commission chair Timothy Xavier Johnson said he believed that educators are the “vanguard of the future” and that they should have housing.

“I think there’s a bigger backdrop that the city of Berkeley and the U.S. as a whole doesn’t have public housing as widely available as it really should to all the different entities that deserve it or need it,” Johnson said during the meeting. “My ultimate hope is that it’s broadened out to not just be for educators — that it’s broadened out to other municipal employees.”

Contact Aishwarya Kaimal at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Aishwarya_R_K‏.