Raise The Roof

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Anyone familiar with the San Francisco Bay Area's exorbitant rents would think the listing was pure fantasy: brand-new apartments in one of the city's most desirable neighborhoods—all with garage parking, some with ocean views—for as little as $700 a month.

Yet that's the deal the San Francisco school system plans to offer teachers at a 43-unit apartment complex it's set to build. In May, the local school board unanimously approved the plan, part of a larger effort to recruit teachers and help them beat the steep housing costs in the city, where a one-bedroom apartment typically goes for more than $1,600 a month and a teacher's starting salary is $31,000. "The district has no control over what is unfortunately an out-of-control housing market," board President Mary Hernandez says. "So we have to take the initiative and come up with some creative, innovative solutions for our staff." The complex is the first of five subsidized housing projects for teachers the district plans to build in San Francisco by 2005.

Builders are breaking ground this fall on the first complex, a $15 million building that will be located next to a new elementary school in the Sunset District neighborhood. However, the financing of the project has not gone smoothly. In early summer, district officials negotiated a first-of-its-kind arrangement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help keep the cost of the units down. HUD's Federal Housing Authority agreed to guarantee the loans needed to pay for the construction; agency lawyers deemed that a project reserved solely for educators would not violate federal rules. But rumors started circulating among Sunset District residents that the complex for teachers could easily become government housing for welfare recipients, and at a town meeting, angry neighbors denounced the school board.

In late August, the district announced that it would not partner with HUD on the project after all but take loans at similarly low rates from several private banks instead. Officials say the district hopes to use HUD assistance on its future teacher housing projects.

The first complex will likely be completed by fall 2002. All district teachers— not just those who work in the adjacent school—will be eligible to live there. Although pledging that the units will be open to veteran and new teachers alike, officials of the 65,000-student district say they're still working out the details of how to decide who gets one. They expect the complex to generate interest from far more teachers than it can accommodate.

Some local educators complain that the project doesn't address what they say is the real problem: inadequate teacher salaries. No pay increase was approved last year, and, although raises are expected soon, teachers are still grumbling. "I find that [the housing initiative] seals the fate of teachers," says Steven Herraiz, a kindergarten teacher at John Muir Elementary School. "They're saying we're going to have to give teachers discounted housing because they're always going to be the lowest-paid professionals out there."

But the housing project has drawn praise from the leadership of the United Educators of San Francisco, the merged local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. "The realities are that a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco can cost $2,000 a month, and a house can cost $400,000 or more," says President Kent Mitchell. "So no matter how much of an increase there is in teachers' salaries, unless we can address the housing issue, we won't be able to attract or retain teachers."

The apartment complexes—which will total 500 units, some for purchase—will accommodate only a fraction of the system's 4,300 teachers, but Hernandez says her district will continue to work with the union to explore new solutions to the housing crunch. "The critical thing is that teachers are an important part of the community," says Larry Bush, a representative from HUD's San Francisco office. "When we lose them, we lose something that stabilizes and builds communities."

—Jeff Archer

Vol. 12, Issue 2, Page 11

Published in Print: October 1, 2000, as Raise The Roof
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