Public educator housing could become reality in Berkeley

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Seventy-eight percent of Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, employees who are not homeowners have indicated that housing insecurity is impacting their ability to continue working for the district in the long term, according to a BUSD housing survey published in October 2017.

Berkeley Housing Opportunities for Municipal Employees, or BeHOME, was formed to advocate for and develop a plan to expedite the development of workforce housing. It has been working with BUSD since 2017, according to BeHOME founder David Mayer. At the April 30 City Council meeting, BUSD was allocated $150,000 from the city’s Measure U1 funds, which will allow the district to begin the project’s preplanning process, plan for its finances and help to determine the style of housing units.

“One of the benefits of living in a community like Berkeley is that there is a lot of thoughtful people with different perspectives,” Mayer said. “Berkeley has a history of demonstrated support for the educator community and the value of investing in our children through education.”

Planning for the housing

According to BUSD board director Julie Sinai, the district plans to have pre-development and the financing of construction outlined by fall 2019. This way, according to Sinai, if the city allows the district to have access to money from Measure O — which funds housing for low-, median- and middle-income populations — it can start to respond to requests for proposals when they become available.

According to Mayer, resident rent will pay for some of the construction of the buildings. Mayer added that some funding will also come from tax credits, as some of the units will be rented out to employees who make less than the area median income, or AMI.

Mayer added that there may still be a funding gap but that the gap could close if the project is granted Measure O funds or money from other city funds.

According to BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans, in order for Measure O to fund housing for teachers, it would have to expand its income eligibility from the current threshold — a household income of 60 percent of AMI or below — to up to 120 percent of AMI. The income level of most BUSD teachers is higher than 60 percent of AMI; yet, as the results from the survey show, they still cannot afford to live in or near the community.

Mayer said the two sites BUSD has currently narrowed the search down to are the Berkeley Adult School parking lot located on San Pablo Avenue and a part of West Campus — a site adjacent to the district headquarters on Bonar Street.

Sinai added that the district wants to build as many units as a site can handle while also following zoning laws and keeping the design of the neighborhood in mind. She said that while the units have not been designed yet, she thinks it is likely that there will be a mix of housing options for families as well as for single adults.

Depending on the property chosen and the size of the units, Sinai said she estimates that there will be about 85 to 105 units available. She said she hopes that more will eventually be built, as there would still be three additional BUSD-owned sites available. According to Mayer, those sites include a current maintenance facility and the Berkeley High School tennis courts.

The city’s push to build workforce housing follows a wave of school districts attempting to find new ways to keep their educators in their communities. San Francisco is in the planning stages of its Francis Scott Key Annex Educator Housing. On March 12, the developer of that site submitted its project application to the San Francisco Planning Department. Santa Clara Unified School District looked into building educator housing in 2001 and built a complex in 2002. There are currently 70 rental units — which Chief Business Official Eric Dill says worked out well financially and drew people to the district. BUSD and BeHOME have been looking at these existing examples of workforce housing to try to figure out the best strategy for Berkeley, according to Sinai.

“We see … a larger constellation of things that are affecting teachers. It’s housing. It’s salary. It’s the cost of health care,” said Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Cathy Campbell.

Benefiting the community

Many community members have expressed support for employee housing, including Campbell.

Sinai said there are “no downsides” to building educator housing, adding that she believes teachers, staff and students will all gain from it. Students will benefit because schools will be able to retain qualified teachers, and teachers likely will not leave in the middle of the school year. Building workforce housing will also help the environment, since fewer people will have to commute to work, according to Sinai.

“I think that the development of affordable housing for educators is the logical extension of our commitment to education, because without a secure and stable workforce, our children suffer, the employees of the district suffer, and the community as a whole suffers,” Mayer said. “My feeling is that we have a lot of momentum now to move forward.”

Itinerant BUSD middle school music teacher Aimee Lubalin said she believes that educator housing is a “great idea.” Lubalin, who rents a house in Oakland with her wife and two kids, said she currently cannot afford her rent. She added that at least half of her paycheck is spent on rent, even with help from her in-laws.

“I would love to see housing for teachers and housing for the folks who keep our school district running and who earn even less than the teachers do,” Lubalin said.

Classified workers — employees who, unlike teachers, do not need a certification to obtain a job within the district — have also shown support.

Not enough money to stay

According to Linnette Robinson, president of the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees, or BCCE, the proposed housing could help members of BCCE live in their “own space.” She added, however, that the decision to utilize the housing would depend upon the cost of rent, as the wages of many classified employees are “poverty level low.”

“Having affordable housing is a great thing. It is a good faith showing on the District’s part. I am trying to be optimistic. I have to travel an hour plus both ways because I can’t afford to live around here. So yes, I appreciate the team effort,” Robinson said in an email.

Berkeley High School math teacher Dan Plonsey said he hopes that the proposed housing will “make a dent in the problem.” He said, however, that he is skeptical of the idea that the housing project is the best solution, adding that most people he has talked to have pointed toward the need for significantly higher wages.

The issue of salary weighs heavily on others as well.

“The most important thing is that our members and our classified staff need a significant increase in compensation,” Campbell said. “We have to compete for talent. … Our salaries are becoming less competitive, and that really needs to be addressed by our school board.”

Berkeley High School English teacher Amanda Moreno said she thinks creating teacher housing is a “good first step.” But she also said she thinks that “in the grand scheme of things, it would make sense” to give teachers subsidies so that they can buy their own homes near their work.

“I’m an adult. I don’t want to live in an apartment complex for other teachers like a college dorm. I want a place to call my own. I want a home. I want to be able to raise my family there,” Moreno said.

It seems that for many in the community, the housing project is beneficial. However, some also see the need for more action.

Robinson said low wages will keep classified staff in need, so although she appreciates the step forward, she sees educator housing as a “partial fix” and an “application of a bandaid.”

Lubalin added that although increasing wages for teachers would help, she understands that there are certain limitations to what the district can give. She also said she would consider moving into the educator housing.

“It’s hard to imagine that they could provide a three-bedroom-type living situation, but if they could and we could afford it, then we would consider it, that is for sure,” Lubalin said.

Sinai said that along with starting the workforce housing process, the board is also involved in negotiations with unions to try to get more equitable salaries. She added that she believes that affordable housing and increased salaries are not mutually exclusive.

Sinai said, however, that that there is no raise the district could provide that would give people access to housing in Berkeley — even if an employee was making the highest wage, $90,000 a year, they still would not be able to afford the area.

Looking to the future

Even though BUSD has begun working toward this project, no official timeline has been set.

There are many issues, in both the short term and the long term, that need to be worked on in order to retain “great” teachers in Berkeley, according to Campbell. The housing project is a longer-term issue, along with working toward increased revenue measures at the state level.

For Campbell, the housing project cannot be the only thing that people focus on, as it is “too far in the future.” She added that current pressing matters — one of which is the negotiation of a meaningful contract for teachers, whose current contracts expire in June — also need time and energy dedicated to them.

“I think the biggest challenge (with educator housing) is the time it takes when the crisis is right before us,” Sinai said. “It is great to be able to plan for 100 units that will be available in three years … (but we) need to look at housing right now because many (staff members) can’t wait.”

Boyce Buchanan is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @BuchananBoyce.