A local school district's unique idea to turn schools into teacher housing – an attempt to tackle the region's dire housing shortage and retain fleeing instructors – is colliding with a massive backlash from neighborhood residents.
The San Jose Unified School District has identified nine district-owned properties where it is considering building several hundred new units of affordable housing for teachers and other school employees.
The district's proposal calls for schools – including beloved Leland High School and Bret Harte Middle School in wealthy Almaden Valley – to be uprooted and relocated to make way for housing, a prospect that has some community members up in arms.
"It is ridiculous," former Leland football coach Mike Carrozzo said of the proposal. "You're going to build low-income housing in one of the more prosperous areas in the Bay Area, which also happens to be the furthest corner of the district for district teachers. It's crazy."
San Jose Unified says it's fighting to find and retain workers as rising housing costs outpace income. Teachers are commuting up to four hours a day to and from the city's schools, potential hires are refusing jobs here and talented staff are quitting in droves, forcing the school district to replace one out of every seven teachers each year.
"The only reason we're looking at the properties is that fear that in 10 years if the Google development happens downtown, and downtown becomes a high-cost area for housing ... there won't be classroom teachers in San Jose Unified," said deputy superintendent Stephen McMahon. "Where are they going to live?"
The proposed Google development would bring up to 20,000 workers, new office buildings, homes, shops and restaurants to downtown San Jose near the Diridon train station.
Officials have tagged eight schools and the district's offices as potential housing sites, choosing schools that have declining enrollment, are housed in aging buildings, or would be ideal residential sites for other reasons. None of the schools would be closed. But they would be moved and their original buildings might be bulldozed, which some neighbors say would disrupt their communities.
The district hasn't yet secured funds for the proposed project, but it likely would be financed through city, county or state housing bonds – and it would not take money away from students or teacher salaries, said San Jose Unified board president Susan Ellenberg, who is running for a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
As heated debate swirls around the proposal, dividing Almaden residents, some affordable housing advocates say the response mirrors the "not in my backyard" or NIMBY attitudes that often derail plans to build low-income homes throughout the Bay Area.
But as the need for affordable housing grows, teacher housing programs are popping up throughout the Bay Area. Last month, an experimental teacher housing complex in Palo Alto inched closer to fruition when it secured additional funding. The Santa Clara Unified School District already provides affordable teacher housing through its Casa del Maestro complex. And San Francisco-based startup Landed helps local teachers afford down payments on homes near their schools.
In San Jose, Leland High and Bret Harte Middle, built in the 1960s, made the school district's list of potential housing sites because they are due for major upgrades, McMahon said. If chosen after a district analysis – which may take the better part of a year – the two schools could be relocated two miles away to the corner of Harry and McKean roads, next door to Challenger School – Almaden.
A Wednesday meeting to discuss the plan, which drew hundreds of residents, devolved into angry shouting. An online petition to "save Leland and Bret Harte" had nearly 5,000 signatures Friday, with supporters arguing that the schools are vital to the neighborhood, and that building low-cost housing in their place would depress home values, negatively impact the aesthetics of the area and worsen traffic.
Bret Harte and Leland – alma maters of NFL player Pat Tillman, who was killed while serving in the Army in Afghanistan – are cornerstones for neighbors like 50-year-old Sharon Pfeiffer, who has lived in Almaden her whole life, and whose family has lived there for eight generations.
"Pat Tillman Field means a lot to the community out here," Pfeiffer said of the Leland football stadium named in Tillman's honor.
Pfeiffer also worries that plunking affordable housing down in her neighborhood will cause home values to plummet.
"There has to be a better solution," she said, "or a better location to do this."
But unless San Jose becomes more affordable for teachers, the quality of the community's schools is going to decline, McMahon said. San Jose Unified replaces about 200 teachers a year, he said. When teachers quit, they overwhelmingly blame the region's high cost of living.
For the teachers who do stay, their quality of life is suffering. Their average commute times keep getting longer, said Patrick Bernhardt, president of the San Jose Teachers Association, which conducts an annual survey of its members' commutes. Teachers are driving as much as two hours to school each day from their homes in cheaper communities like Los Banos, Watsonville, Gilroy and Morgan Hill, he said.
"If we don't do something, there will not be enough teachers in classrooms in as little as five years," Bernhardt said.
Taylor Swenson is among those teachers struggling to remain in the Bay Area. Swenson and her husband, both of whom were born and raised in San Jose, want to buy a house in their hometown but can't afford to.
"We definitely want to continue to live in San Jose, plant our roots there, potentially raise a family in San Jose," said Swenson, a 30-year-old former elementary school teacher who now works as a teacher coach for San Jose Unified. "And as renters, it's incredibly challenging."