The Berkeley School Board decided a 2018 bond measure for workforce housing is not the way to solve the employee housing crisis. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Berkeley Unified will not ask voters to approve a bond measure for employee housing in 2018, per a vote at Wednesday’s School Board meeting.

Instead, after disagreeing on a number of different proposals throughout the extended discussion, the board directed staff to include workforce housing on the list of considerations for its 2020 facilities bond measure. Only board president Josh Daniels, who supported a 2018 bond, voted no. His colleagues all expressed serious reservations about acting too quickly, or prioritizing this issue over others that might go to the voters.

The item came to the board after 800 employees filled out a district survey, the majority expressing interest in BUSD building low-rent housing for its teachers and staff. That optional survey found that 78% of renters who responded are facing housing pressure due to high costs, threatening the district’s ability to maintain its workforce. Already, 54% of renters have considered leaving BUSD due to housing costs, and 50% of all respondents said they knew somebody who had already left.

“This housing would help recruit and retain employees, based on our findings,” a researcher from the UC Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools, which conducted the survey, told the board Wednesday.

The board first considered developing low-rent housing for teachers and classified staff in March, and asked staff in August to survey employees and come back with options. On Wednesday, board members considered the possibilities of placing a bond measure for housing on the 2018 ballot, including the housing on a planned 2020 facilities bond or entering into a public-private partnership with a developer to construct the units.

Any of the options would like take at least four to five years to bring to fruition, said BUSD facilities director Tim White at the meeting.

Some teachers and staff who spoke to Berkeleyside earlier this week said they would appreciate workforce housing. Others questioned who exactly it would serve, arguing it might help attract new, young employees, but fail to serve older staff who have families or a place they are struggling to hold onto.

Berkeley Federation of Teachers president Cathy Campbell asked the board Wednesday to proceed with caution, suggesting a salary increase would benefit more people.

“The most important factor in teacher recruitment and retention for BUSD is compensation,” said the union president. She said developing housing would present new challenges for the district, including figuring out how to end a lease if a tenant left their job.

During board discussion, Karen Hemphill said she would have trouble supporting a bond if even the union did not embrace it.

The discussion followed a district budget update that painted a grim picture of BUSD’s financial future, leaving it unclear whether salaries will rise anytime soon, however. Along with the $1.8 million in budget cuts slated for 2018-19, staff said they would likely recommend another $1 million the following year — or more, if compensation increased.

Daniels said the board had pursued the possibility of a housing bond in the first place because it would not require any general fund dollars.

Several board members said were unprepared at this point to make a decision about a 2018 bond. They were concerned that development would only serve a limited number of people, come with management challenges, suck up staff time and threaten the success of other upcoming bond measures.

“I feel that not only is it premature, but I think I have enough information to say it’s not feasible or advisable to do a district bond in 2018,” said board member Ty Alper.

Some on the board, however, were interested in asking the city to pursue a bond instead. There was also more support for the public-private approach, through which a for-profit developer would enter into a long-term lease with the district and build both market-rate and low-rent employee units on BUSD property. UC Berkeley has recently adopted this approach for student housing. Through such a partnership, at least half of the units would likely be market-rate, according to White.

Daniels, who has worked with staff on this issue over the past year, was the sole voice of encouragement for a 2018 bond measure. He argued that the district will be unable to provide the kind of compensation necessary to accommodate workers as the housing crisis rages on.

“There are districts, like San Francisco and Oakland, that will be building housing in the next five years,” Daniels said. “We will be competing with those districts for highly qualified staff. If we want to be competitive and we want future boards to appreciate the work we’ve done in little old 2017…these are the kind of forward-thinking decisions we need to make now.”

Board member Judy Appel eventually made a motion to refer the issue to the district’s facilities committee for further exploration.

“I don’t think this should just die on the vine,” she said.

The motion failed, and Daniels responded that a referral to committee would be a “disservice” to the extensive analysis already conducted by BUSD staff. His motion to pursue a 2018 bond measure did not get a second.

As the designated 30-minute discussion reached the one-hour mark, Alper made the motion, seconded by Appel, to direct staff to put workforce housing on the list of considerations for the 2020 facilities bond. The vote does not guarantee inclusion in the final bond measure.

“I am disappointed that the board decided against making a firm commitment to building low-rent housing for our employees,” Daniels said in an email to Berkeleyside on Thursday. “The issue of affordable workforce housing is at crisis levels and will only continue to get worse, making it harder for Berkeley to recruit and retain high quality teachers and staff.”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...