Woman in teachers union shirt speaks at a podium. Several people are standing behind her, some holding signs that say "Keep teachers in Berkeley."
Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, kicks off union negotiations in March, asking for higher wages. She believes workforce housing could be part of the solution. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A basement unit with no heater or oven.

A house out in Hercules.

A mediocre apartment shared with with three or four other thirty-somethings.

Like their colleagues throughout the Bay Area, Berkeley teachers and staff have resorted in recent years to a variety of subpar living situations, unable to afford astronomical rents or down payments with their wages. Others have left the district or region altogether.

Facing the possibility of a teacher shortage, some Berkeley Unified officials are thinking of building a below-market-rate rental housing complex for district employees.

Those district leaders, along with community members who’ve taken up the cause, hope such a development would help BUSD attract and hold onto educators who couldn’t otherwise afford to live locally. A couple Bay Area districts, like Santa Clara Unified, already offer apartments to workers, and others like San Francisco have been trying to get plans off the ground for years.

“A large swath of our workforce is what you might consider housing-insecure, or a paycheck away from crisis,” said Berkeley School Board member Julie Sinai. “In particular, we need to make sure we can recruit teachers.”

Berkeley teachers’ salaries range from $44,000 to $91,000. Classified staff — administrative assistants, special-ed aides, maintenance workers — can make much less. According to city data, the average one-bedroom in Berkeley costs more than $2,500 a month, or nearly the entirety of some employees’ pay.

The idea of workforce housing first came up in Berkeley a few years ago, but has picked up steam since the November passage of Measure O, the city’s $135 million affordable housing bond measure that explicitly named teachers as a target group.

On Thursday night, the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission will discuss whether to recommend that the City Council award BUSD with a $150,000 pre-development grant, either from Measure O or another source, to assess potential development sites and devise timelines and cost estimates.

Two women in front of a building. One holds a hand-written banner sign that says, "we love our jobs but can't afford them!"
Berkeley teachers rallied in January in support of striking teachers in Los Angeles. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The city’s Housing Trust Fund has been named as another possible source, but the council would need to change the eligibility for that fund, to allow the money to be spent on moderate-income tenants like teachers, not just low-income residents.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín has twice addressed the School Board to say he wants the city to help the district explore workforce housing.

Adult school, district headquarters floated as potential sites

Community discussions around educator housing began in earnest after the 2016 presidential election, said David Mayer, a Berkeley resident and father of two BUSD graduates. Feeling “disgusted and deflated,” he and some neighbors were looking for ways to effect change locally, and quickly landed on teacher housing.

“What became clear, back in 2016 and 2017, was the middle class was being looked over,” Mayer said. “There was an increasing focus by city, and appropriately so, on homelessness. And the market was taking care of the wealthy.”

With a new California law allowing districts to develop affordable rental housing for workers, Mayer and his neighbors decided to advocate for such a project in Berkeley. That effort morphed into BeHOME Berkeley, a community group working with the district on employee housing.

“This was a community where teachers could afford houses,” said Mayer, who’s lived in central Berkeley since 1978. The spike in prices “affected the diversity of this town in a very deep way.”

“And if you dig a little deeper, you realize, wow, teachers are well paid compared to the support staff,” he said.

In 2017, district staff and UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools presented officials with the results from a board-commissioned staff survey, revealing significant housing insecurity among employees, many of whom said they were thinking of leaving the district. More than half of all district employees responded to the survey, with a majority reporting that they live outside of Berkeley, and half saying they knew a colleague who had left BUSD because of housing costs.

The parking lot at the Berkeley Adult School is one of four district properties that could possibly host the new development. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Around the time the report came out, officials said they were open to the idea of building housing — as long as the district’s general fund was left untouched. BUSD went through its second round of $2 million budget cuts this year, with more likely to come next spring. However, the board turned down its first chance to pursue a project, deciding not to put a bond measure for development on the 2018 ballot. Then Josh Daniels, the board’s strongest champion of workforce housing at the time, left the office in the fall.

Now, however, Daniels has become part of BeHOME, and his former colleagues and successors on the board are forging ahead with the idea. There have been several work sessions and panel presentations on the topic this school year.

“I’m just one vote on the School Board, but I think that if we can identify the appropriate site and put together a financial model…it’s highly probable we’ll decide to move forward,” Sinai said.

Four sites have been floated: the Adult School parking lot at 1720 San Pablo Ave., the field at the district’s 1222 University Ave. headquarters, the former tennis courts at Berkeley High, and the maintenance facility on Oregon and Russell streets. There are competing interests, zoning challenges, and potential engineering barriers at some of the sites.

If BUSD moves forward with the project, the district would likely lease the site to an affordable housing developer, who might build somewhere between 50 and 200 units, according to estimates the district has drawn up over the past couple years. The rent for each unit would likely be set at one-third of each household’s income, with chunks set aside for those higher on the pay scale and those lower, Mayer said.

Estimated costs have ranged from $32 million to $74 million.

Despite the big figures, Mayer said he believes the project is doable.

“Because the land is free, it can cover a lot of your costs,” he said.

The district would also receive revenue from the rents, and tax credits, as permitted by the new state law. The remaining chunk could be covered by a range of sources, supporters say, including Measure O and other city money, or county funds and philanthropy. There have also been talks of renting out a set of market-rate units or including condos in the complex.

Do workers want to live in district housing?

First-year teacher Marvin Reed said he’s glad BUSD is pursuing workforce housing. He told the School Board in 2018 that wages need to be higher too. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Cristine Tennant loves teaching in the Bay Area, serving the community that raised her.

A graduate of Berkeley schools, the King Middle School English teacher said the student body and well-resourced classrooms are draws for her and her colleagues. For Tennant, getting a job here also meant she could live near her sister, who has young kids, and her parents, who are growing older. Tennant actually lived with her parents while getting her master’s degree from UC Berkeley, and during her first year at King.

Later she was able to move into a unit that opened up in an Emeryville apartment where some teacher-friends lived. The rent is alright and the commute could be worse. But with Tennant’s fiancée moving in with her in a couple of months, she’s not sure how long they’ll be able to stay.

“We would love to have our own place,” she said. “We plan to have kids and I don’t think that when we do that we can stay there. What roommates want to live with an infant?”

But Tennant’s fiancée is a teacher too, and the young couple knows the alternative options are few.

Even so, Tennant doesn’t think she’d want to live in a district complex.

“The cap on how long you can stay there actually feels really limiting,” she said. (Other districts have five- or seven-year time limits.) “I know there are limitations to how funding can be spent, but I wish all of that money and willpower would go into paying teachers a living wage.”

Several other teachers who talked to Berkeleyside shared similar views, calling the project a “bandaid” and worrying it would be like “the teacher projects” or “dorm-style” living.

Supporters of the project emphasized that there would be apartments, not dorms, including some designed for families.

“It’s not going to be a crappy apartment, it’s going to be a nice apartment in a nice community,” Mayer said. “If an educator is making $30,000 to $40,000 a year, and you can provide them with an apartment that’s less than $900 a month, I think they’ll grab it.” He said there are waitlists for housing developed by other districts.

In the 2017 survey, 74% of the renters who responded said they might be interested in BUSD housing.

Marvin Reed, a third-grade teacher at Thousand Oaks, is glad the district is pursuing the project.

A first-year teacher who moved to the East Bay from Sacramento for the job, Reed was quickly hit with difficulty of finding a place to live near his new workplace. After staying in Pittsburg — and getting up at 5 a.m. for the commute — he found a studio in Oakland where he could have his two dogs. The place is in an area where rents are high, but Reed got his car broken into twice in one week.

Reed wanted to work in Berkeley because, like Tennant, he went to school here, moving with his family to Sacramento after finishing fifth grade at Oxford. He remembers those years and the opportunities his teachers gave him fondly. He wanted to play the same role in his students’ lives but didn’t expect to be the only African-American male elementary teacher in the entire district.

“I feel like I’m these kids’ leader, and it’s my duty to make a difference — and I feel like I’m very alone,” he said. And he doesn’t expect BUSD to be able to attract new teachers of color with the current rents and salaries in Berkeley.

Reed’s experience working with the kids and his colleagues has still been largely positive, however, and because he has a master’s degree, he can make a bit more money than other new teachers. He’s supplemented that by taking on extra paid tasks — leading science club, teaching marching band in Pleasanton — passions of his, but also financial necessities.

Like other untenured teachers, Reed received a pink slip this year and is faced with the decision of whether to stick it out in the pricy Bay Area without job security.

Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, said a district development project might not help retain current teachers, who might be older or not want to suddenly move in with their coworkers. But she believes it will help attract new educators to the area, who might otherwise be scared away by the housing prices.

Campbell remembers campaigning for union vice president in 2005 and sending out mailers to teachers. Back then, more than half of the fliers went out to homes in Berkeley.

“Over the course of 12, 14 years, I’ve absolutely seen that change,” Campbell said.

While her union is supporting the workforce housing project and campaigned heavily for Measures O and P, members have cautioned the district against using the plans as an excuse not to raise salaries.

“We’ve emphasized that compensation has to be part of this equation, it’s not an either/or,” Campbell said. Union contract negotiations have just begun.

“We need to increase salaries to our greatest ability,” Sinai agreed. “But the bottom line is frankly there’s no raise that we can provide teachers that’s going to make living in the East Bay or Bay Area easy.”

While the BUSD housing project is still in the early stages, advocates have already given thought to a similar effort around city workers.

Without a law like SB 1413, such a project will run into more hurdles. Mayer said it’s worth considering in the future.

“We have an underlying belief that in a town like Berkeley if you want the services you want…you need to be able to have employees live here,” he said.

Update: At its April 4 meeting, the city’s Housing Advisory Commission unanimously recommended that the City Council award Berkeley Unified with a $150,000 pre-development grant to explore workforce housing. The council would need to approve the grant and determine the funding source.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said the council at its April 30 meeting will consider using Measure U1 tax receipts to fund a grant.

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Natalie Orenstein

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,...