Berkeley Adult school sign
The board of the Berkeley School District wants to build housing for teachers and staff on the parking lot of the Berkeley Adult School at 1701 San Pablo Ave. Currently, the lot is being used by Curative, which runs a COVID-19 test facility there. Photo: Pete Rosos

Cornelius Smith pulls into the parking lot at Oxford Elementary at 8 a.m. He leans the driver’s seat back to get some shut-eye, two hours before his shift starts. 

By day, Smith works as a school safety officer at the high school. By night, he is an armed officer at the Federal Reserve in San Francisco. He sleeps when he can, crashing for a few hours in the evening at his cousin’s place in Emeryville or at his parent’s in Hercules, and in his car in the mornings. The drive home to Antioch takes up to an hour and a half, depending on traffic, and he makes it back only on the weekends.

Smith would love to live in Berkeley, but with the sky-high cost of housing, “it’s way too expensive.” Many teachers live paycheck to paycheck, and classified staff like Smith earn even less. School safety officers at Berkeley Unified make as little as $29,000 each year, and the median salary for district employees is $45,833

To make ends meet, district employees are forced to get creative. “A lot of my coworkers have to get a second job or move out of the area or both,” Smith said. Two-thirds of district staff live outside of Berkeley, some commuting from faraway places like Vacaville and Brentwood, and half say they have considered leaving the district due to the high cost of housing, according to a 2017 district survey. 

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract and retain new teachers and educators due to the affordability of housing,” said David Mayer, who has been a staunch advocate for the project with BeHOME Berkeley, a community group pushing for affordable housing for city employees.

The Adult School parking lot could hold 110 affordable homes for teachers and staff

That’s where the district’s new workforce housing project comes in. On Feb. 17, the school board took a decisive step toward providing affordable housing. In a unanimous vote, the board approved the location for a project that could build up to 110 homes for its teachers and staff in the parking lot of the Berkeley Adult School at 1701 San Pablo Ave.

The decision is the outcome of years of incremental progress and advocacy work. “We have been a thorn in their side,” Mayer said of BeHome’s advocacy efforts. The conversation about the development began in earnest in 2016 after a new state law allowed school districts to establish affordable rental housing for its employees. The board demurred at the time but picked the issue back up two years later after Berkeley voters passed Measure O, a $135 million bond to develop affordable housing with a special focus on education workers.

Since the passage of the 2016 California law, several Bay Area districts have developed plans to build their own housing for education workers. In Daly City, a housing project planned to open by summer 2022 will provide 122 homes for employees at Jefferson Union High School District. Santa Clara County and San Francisco also have similar projects in the works, but have not broken ground on construction. Oakland recently launched a pilot subsidized housing program for twelve student-teachers working toward their credential in an effort to recruit more high-quality teachers to Oakland Unified. 

The 6-story building on San Pablo Ave would create about 12 studios, 54 one-bedrooms, 27 two-bedrooms, and 17 three-bedrooms, situated over a two-story parking garage. The parking garage will provide about 140 parking spaces for the Adult School and 55 spots for building residents. The design discussed at the board meeting is conceptual only at this point.

Ideally, rent would cost about 30% of a household’s monthly income. In the current outline, two-thirds of the homes will be below-market-rate and about 15% would cost half of the market rate. The apartments would be available for certified and classified staff like teachers, custodians, and librarians, but not for management.

A preliminary image of BUSD workforce housing at the Berkeley Adult School parking lot. 

Development and construction will take at least 5 years

Approving a location for the project kicks into gear a development process that is projected to take four to five years. This spring, the school board will issue a Request for Proposal and select a developer, who will draw up design plans, engage the community to hear its concerns, and apply for financing. Funding sources have not been identified but the project might be financed by Measure O funds, Low Income Housing Tax Credits, CalHFA Middle Income Program funds, and rental income. Once construction begins, it is expected to take 18 months. 

Affordable housing would give teachers like Spencer Pritchard more time to dedicate to the jobs they love. On top of co-chairing the African American studies department at Berkeley High and teaching five different classes, Pritchard spends his limited free time picking up extra hours as a substitute and teaches summer school each year. 

“I can only live this lifestyle for so long. It’s not sustainable,” said Pritchard who “is working more often than not” and budgets scrupulously to manage student loans, insurance, and rent. Pritchard currently lives with three roommates in a cramped West Oakland apartment, but dreams of having his own one-bedroom apartment— owning his own home is out of the question. Only 1% of homes in Alameda County are affordable for the average teacher, according to a 2018 report commissioned by the school district. 

69% of staff said high cost of housing impacts their ability to stay

Affordable housing is one piece of the puzzle to recruit more outstanding educators to work in Berkeley schools, Pritchard said. Pritchard has seen many co-workers leave the district due to the high cost of living and low compensation, especially when it came time to start a family. 69% of district staff said the high cost of housing negatively impacts their long-term ability to stay in BUSD, according to the 2017 survey. Other teachers choose to work elsewhere from the get-go, in large part out of concern for finances, Pritchard said.

The demand for this housing will far outstrip the supply. Three-fourths of staff who rent homes said they would be interested in living in workforce housing, according to the survey. The district has a workforce of over 2,300 employees. Mayer acknowledged the project’s limited scope, but said that, for those who are able to get an affordable home, “it will be extremely impactful.” In the long-term, Mayer hopes that the city can partner with the district to build more housing for teachers and eventually, other public servants like nurses or sanitation workers, as well.

During public comment at the school board meeting, neighbors raised concern over the location of the housing, the flow of traffic into nearby neighborhoods, the paucity of parking spaces, and proximity to another housing development at the North Berkeley BART Station.

“No one is against affordable housing…. But let’s be honest. No one wants a high-rise building built right next to them,” Jodi Ravel said during public comment at the school board meeting. “No wants cars rolling round and round and round on their street, or their sunlight blocked, or construction going on for years and years right next to them. Nobody wants it. You don’t want it. We don’t want it. This is really about equitable distribution of the burden and the opportunity of development in our city.”  

“When we have such a huge housing crisis, leaving property on a major transit corridor vacant for cars versus people, I think, is a mistake,” said Julie Sinai, a school board member who helped coordinate the workforce housing project. “If you want to keep large buildings out of neighborhoods, you have the larger buildings on transit corridors,” said Sinai, who hopes that the development process can meet housing needs for staff while addressing community concerns. 

“Public servants are the backbone of our community, but we don’t pay them enough. We pay lip service to value, but if we really valued them, we’d create a path for them to live a quality life,” Mayer said.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...