Taking the lead on employee housing

I hope you'll read this opinion editorial I wrote for the Mercury News, and share if you agree...

Opinion: How school districts can help solve housing crisis

As a former nonprofit director, I believe in the power of partnerships. In order to fund new programs, projects, or initiatives, it is critical to build connections with government agencies, charitable foundations, and corporate philanthropy.

The same mentality should apply to public school districts, especially those like San José Unified that struggle to meet their needs with limited resources allocated by the state based on outdated funding formulas.

The success of the Measure A housing bond presents an opportunity for partnership with Santa Clara County to create more affordable housing for the “missing middle” – including teachers, nurses, and other school employees – who generally earn too much to qualify for subsidies but too little to afford market-rate rents and home prices.

Unfortunately, potential sites like the former San José City Hall Annex have become pawns in triangulated proxy wars between housing advocates, neighborhood activists, and government officials over how Measure A dollars should be spent.

While others posture and fight over solutions, school districts can and should play a key role in the process.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez recently called on school districts to come to the table with land, resources, or ideas for affordable housing projects that the County could fund, and her request for leadership was music to my ears.

As the largest district in the county, with more than 30,000 students and 4,000 full- and part-time employees, San José Unified would be a natural leader in this arena.

Our district is also in a unique position to leverage Measure A dollars as the single largest property owner in San José, with over three million square feet of land and facilities.

The housing crisis is impacting all of us. Enrollment is on the decline in our Downtown schools as working class families are forced out of the area by skyrocketing rents and property values. This displacement is becoming particularly pronounced with the anticipation of a massive Google campus about to land completely within San José Unified’s boundaries.

With declining enrollment comes a decline in funding, creating a vicious cycle that puts additional stress, anxiety, and trauma on our educators, who are facing severe financial pressures outside the classroom.

A teacher in their first year of service with San José Unified makes $55,000 a year before taxes, well below the average median income for our area. If they avoid early burnout and somehow make it to 30 years, the same teacher is still only making $92,000 annually. The situation for our classified employees – more than 1,200 of them – is even worse.

The high cost of living in Silicon Valley makes the current nationwide educator shortage more pronounced, as San José Unified struggles to recruit and retain teachers and educational staff, particularly in key areas such as math, bilingual, and special education.

If we can’t afford to pay our employees more, the district should look to provide additional supports to make it easier to live in our community.

Last week, the Board of Education took a step in the right direction by asking staff to develop a master plan for district properties in order to identify underutilized lands and facilities that could be leveraged for housing or other community benefits.

While this is encouraging progress, it will take future boards to follow through and realize the full potential of partnerships between Santa Clara County, the City of San José, and surrounding school districts to create housing solutions that support our entire educational family.

Peter Allen is Chair of the San José Planning Commission and a candidate for San José Unified School District Board of Education in Trustee Area 2.