Concern over the availability and high cost of housing on the Peninsula, particularly for lower paid retail, restaurant and other service workers essential to our local economy and to the community's diversity, has sparked lots of brainstorming and angst in Palo Alto on how to create more affordable "workforce" housing.
With sky-high land acquisition costs and concern over the impacts of higher density development being the major barriers to the construction of more lower cost housing, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian has floated the idea of building apartments for teachers on county-owned land across the street from the courthouse near California Ave.
Simitian's vision is for the county to provide the 1.5-acre parcel on Grant Ave., through a development partnership, to interested north county public school districts and the Foothill-Anza Community College District, which would fund the construction of 60 to 120 units of below-market-rate rental housing for teachers.
The concept, largely in Simitian's head right now, is that each participating school district would have control over the number of apartments proportionate to their financial contribution and would each decide how they are ultimately allocated to their teachers (or staff). His assumption, based on very preliminary conversations he has had with school superintendents, is that school districts in Mountain View, Palo Alto and Los Altos, plus the college district, could be interested, but no formal outreach or assessment has yet occurred.
On Tuesday, Simitian passed an initial hurdle by receiving support from the Board of Supervisors to have county staff work with him to explore interest in the idea, determine how to relocate the current users of the site (the county Public Defender, social services and parking), possibly to a newly constructed office and parking garage on the courthouse property itself, and find interested development partners who would make proposals to prepare a financing plan. The board's approval, which isn't limited to teacher housing, is not a commitment to do anything other than determine need, interest and financial feasibility.
Simitian, the son of a former school teacher, is enthusiastic about the possibility of creating below-market housing for teachers but acknowledges there are other housing needs, especially for lower-income workers, and many unknowns about the actual interest in teachers in such housing or how it would be funded.
In Palo Alto, most teachers are being paid well in excess of $100,000, above the income levels to qualify for current subsidized housing programs. Data obtained from the school district show that in the 2015-16 school year, more than half of Palo Alto teachers lived in the area between Redwood City and Mountain View, with the remainder concentrated in the cities just beyond. Instances of teachers commuting from farther away than San Jose were rare. No hard data has been presented showing that Palo Alto is actually having trouble hiring qualified teachers, only anecdotal stories.
While we heartily support Simitian's initiative to use land already owned by the public to develop subsidized housing, we are skeptical about the demand for such housing by teachers and whether the inherent complexity of financing and building housing that isn't eligible for federal affordable-housing funds makes this idea realistic.
There are, however, two local examples of subsidized teacher housing — one done by the Santa Clara Unified School District some 15 years ago and another by the San Mateo County Community College District, which has constructed 104 rental housing units for faculty and staff on two of its campuses. There are undoubtedly helpful lessons to be learned from these efforts.
If serious problems in recruiting and retaining excellent teachers can be documented, then in Palo Alto we wonder why the county should supply valuable land for teacher housing when the school district already has available land on surplus school sites, including at the Cubberley Community Center. Not only would this be a less complex undertaking, it would allow the county to develop housing on its site for very-low-income individuals, including seniors and service workers.
Every organization in Palo Alto — business, nonprofit and government — is struggling with the lack of affordable housing and the resulting employee-recruiting and commute challenges. So before letting teacher housing become the sole focus, we'd like to see clear evidence of need and demand and a policy discussion about whether and why teacher housing should be a higher priority than other subsidized housing when considering the re-purposing of limited public property.
The value of teachers living within the community may very well be worth making it the priority for the use of this county property, but the public deserves a lot more analysis showing such a plan will actually result in the desired outcome before reaching that policy decision.