It seems that virtually every school district in the Bay Area is either providing housing for teachers or considering doing so in an effort to retain qualified staff that increasingly can’t afford prevailing market rates.

The impetus is understandable and school boards — including those for Cabrillo, La Honda-Pescadero and Jefferson unified school districts on the coast — are motivated by pragmatic and humanitarian concerns. All ethical employers would like to provide a living wage. Teachers are professionals entrusted with our future. And that isn’t hyperbole. If our children are to thrive now and in the future, if the United States is to compete on a global stage, nothing is more important than providing kids with the education they deserve. That means nurturing a happy and productive teaching profession.

Everyone reading these words is well aware of the affordability crisis that increasingly plagues the region. Even people making Silicon Valley wages struggle to pay for housing. Teachers in San Mateo County often earn twice as much as those elsewhere but it’s nowhere near enough to meet common benchmarks for affordability. For instance, an EdSource analysis in 2019 found that a La Honda-Pescadero teacher making $70,000, the average pay in the district, would use 54 percent of her income for an average two-bedroom apartment in the area.

Into that breach, many school districts have come with creative ways to meet the housing need. Some have been too creative. Prior to the Teacher Housing Act of 2016, school districts providing affordable housing had to make it available to anyone meeting low-income requirements. That flummoxed the Los Angeles Unified School District, which built three apartment complexes for staff using federal tax credits. As a result of federal funding, the units had to be made available to everyone meeting requirements, and teachers simply made “too much.” Consequently, there were no teachers in those apartments.

Perhaps the very concept of owing your work and home lives to the same employer seems strange. How many of us want to depend upon our employer for our housing too? What if employee renters are fired or leave work on their own but wish to retain housing? Should school districts be in the landlord business?

When we talk about the affordability crisis and the lack of housing in the region, we often single out certain workers. Firefighters, police officers and teachers are mentioned regularly. But what about others we recently came to know as “essential workers”? Why should public employees benefit from employer-subsidized housing while low-income people working in the private sector do not? In essence, we’re asking low-wage earners to help fund housing for teachers through their taxes or support for bond initiatives while they themselves struggle. Are teachers more worthy of a decent place to live than food service employees, nurses or newspaper reporters?

Providing housing for one class of worker feels like a Band-Aid on a large wound. Time will tell if this works, if happy teachers remain in their jobs longer. If so, perhaps there is something to learn for other segments of society.

— Clay Lambert

Clay Lambert is the editorial director for Coastside News Group. After years working at regional daily newspapers, he began as editor of the Half Moon Bay Review in 2004.

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