The Palo Alto Unified School District School Board voted on Jan. 17 4 to 1 to approve the creation of 29 subsidized units for faculty and staff who meet a qualifying income level. For teachers currently living as far away as Gilroy, this could eliminate hours of commute time.
After over four years of negotiations and legal challenges, Superintendent Dr. Don Austin said that the biggest hurdle in approving the project has been securing land in Palo Alto, which is notoriously limited.
The Educator Workforce Housing Project began when the city of Palo Alto signed on to a Santa Clara County proposal to build more affordable housing in the area. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, then agreed to provide funding to fulfill an earlier commitment to offset its contributions to the Bay Area’s housing shortage. Meta’s move to East Menlo Park has especially aggravated Palo Alto educators’ struggle to afford housing as living costs rise with the influx of high-earning tech workers.
Across the street from the Palo Alto Courthouse and a five-minute walk from the Caltrain, a lightly used parking lot at 231 Grant Avenue will be turned into the 110 unit affordable housing complex. Already 292 employees have expressed interest in the apartments reserved for PAUSD. Santa Clara county has offered the complex’s remaining units to other school districts in the area.
The one dissenting board member, Todd Collins, still had concerns.
“The purpose of this for school districts is really to increase recruiting ability and to increase staff retention. Our district does not have significant recruitment and retention issues,” Collins said.
Collins recommended that PAUSD’s units instead be allotted to the Menlo Park, Ravenswood, or Los Altos districts, where staff receive less compensation- He noted that Los Altos teachers with the same amount of experience are, on average, paid $20,000 less. These districts are currently set to only receive 12 units each from the county.
“We’re getting far more of the subsidized units than they are: 29 units for us versus 12 units for each of them. And there’s been no real effort made to see if the other districts would actually like more,” Collins explained.
“I’m second to nobody in my advocacy for our students wanting to get the best. But I don’t think it needs to be at the expense of students in higher-need districts,” Collins told the board.
Last December, Menlo Park voted down the contentious Measure V, which would have required a citywide vote to approve proposals to turn single-family lots into higher density housing. According to the argument against Measure V submitted to the City of Menlo Park, the measure would have obstructed plans to produce 90 affordable homes for teachers in the district identified by Collins as higher need.
Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educator Association, kindergarten teacher, and long-term advocate for the project, identified its benefits, including for students, whose teachers will no longer have to leave immediately after school to commute home.
“I know having lived close to Palo Alto it’s great to be part of the community and a lot of our teachers can’t do that because they have to travel so far away,” Baldwin said.
Nearby housing could also have a positive environmental effect. School Board President Jennifer DiBrienza noted that putting educators in biking or walking distance of work would take cars off the roads.
DiBrienza is also enthusiastic about PAUSD’s opportunity to function as a model for other school districts facing affordable housing shortages. DiBrienza acknowledged that even if there is not an immediate need for workforce housing, joining a development partnership is a comparatively low-cost opportunity to gage interest and test whether the project improves staff quality of life.
“We spent less than 1.5 million dollars and we get in on a project. So, if other counties or municipalities can partner with school districts and maybe private companies to fund [housing projects] together, it would make [them] a lot more accessible,” DiBrienza proudly said after the vote.