How one Bay Area school district is making sure teachers aren’t priced out

Nov 23, 2015

It’s the end of the week at Laurelwood Elementary, and the kids in Katy Howser’s kindergarten class are getting a quick lesson about bugs before they clean up and go home.

Howser has taught kindergarten here for seven years. Her mom was a kindergarten teacher, too. It’s in the family.

After school today, Howser will teach reading lessons to first graders. Then, she’ll hop in her car and drive five minutes to her apartment.

 

“I live literally down the street from my school, so it’s really nice," she says. "I stop through one stoplight on my way there."

Living in the district

This short commute would be a dream for most people, but it’s especially rare for public school teachers, who are paid a lot less, on average, than their Silicon Valley neighbors who work in tech. Teacher salaries at Santa Clara Unified start at around $55,000. But the South Bay has one of the highest concentration of people earning top 5 percent salaries in the country. The new Apple computer campus is being constructed just around the corner from Howser’s school and her apartment. This type of growth makes it pretty tough for Howser’s fellow teachers to afford to rent or buy a home in their school district.

“I have a friend that lives in South San Jose and she commutes to San Mateo every day," Howser says. "I have another friend that owns a home in Gilroy and commutes up for work every day because that’s where it’s more affordable."

What makes it possible for Howser, though, is something her district invested in when the Bay Area economy was booming, just like it is now: Casa Del Maestro, or House of the Teacher, a district-owned teacher housing project in the Santa Clara Unified School District.

“It allows our newest teachers to be able to afford to live and work in the same school district,” says Jennifer Derrico, the public information officer for the district.

When the complex was built in 2002, and expanded again in 2009, Casa Del Maestro was the first-of-its-kind in the state. Derrico says below market rent at the 70 one- and two-bedroom townhomes help provide relief when teachers are renting, but also after they move out.

“The hope is that they'll move on to buy homes with our mortgage assistance program,” Derrico says.

Many districts in the state, and even across the country, own land. San Francisco Unified owns a few vacant lots, a dog park, and some of the dirt underneath  the Nordstrom at Westfield shopping center. Casa Del Maestro was built on land the Santa Clara School District owned, and it’s managed by an external foundation.

 

“It pays for itself, so we're fortunate that we don’t have to charge more for the apartments in order to keep them running,” Derrico says.

When the school district built the facility, turnover for the first group of teachers to live in Casa Del Maestro dropped below average. The typical rent for a two bedroom with a garage at the complex right now? $1500 a month. That’s about half of what it would cost to rent a similar apartment in the neighborhood.

“House of the teacher”

Katy Howser lives in one of those two bedrooms with her husband.  They’re fixing up the spare room. They’re expecting a baby in the new year. Howser’s been here for six years.

“I can honestly say that if i didn’t have the opportunity to live here, I probably wouldn’t still be working here because our salaries although they're great, we can't afford to live in this area. It’s just not possible,” Howser tells me as she gives me a tour around her apartment.

From her porch, she shows me palm trees the line the entrance way. They lead to a big rec room in the center of the complex.

“They let us rent it out for free. A lot of people use it for their staff holiday parties. I had my birthday party here, people have had baby showers here, wedding showers,” she points out.

One of the best things about living here, she says, is living with other teachers.

“Not to say that we wouldn’t want to ever live with people that aren’t teachers, but having such a stressful job it’s a nice place to come home to.”

And she says she’s a better teacher because of where she lives.

“I don’t know if I would feel as connected if I were commuting from say the North Bay to come down everyday to do my job.”

There are a limited number of spaces at Casa Del Maestro, so there’s a very long wait list. Teachers can only stay seven years before they have to move out and give their spot to another teacher. Howser’s been there for six.

 

“I’m pregnant and I’m due in January, so we're kind of freaking out a little bit trying to figure out what our next step is," she says. "We’ve kind of looked outside the area it’s just hard to want to go outside the area when we both have great jobs and we love them.”

That’s not true for many of Howser’s colleagues.

“There’s a teacher shortage and I think a lot of that has to do with what we get paid to do our job. A lot of the time now teachers can’t afford to be teachers because they can’t afford to live here.”