How a Parking Lot Became a Panacea for This School District’s Housing...

Education Workforce

How a Parking Lot Became a Panacea for This School District’s Housing Crisis

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Sep 18, 2023

How a Parking Lot Became a Panacea for This School District’s Housing Crisis

Shirley Cruz used to pass an old parking lot on her way to and from work.

Adjacent to a former high school, the lot was wasted space back then, she says. Uber and Lyft drivers would congregate there, waiting to get assigned to their next rides, Cruz recalls. Otherwise, it sat empty.

In Daly City, California, just south of San Francisco city limits, that’s prime real estate. The owners of the abandoned parking lot and the land beneath it — the local school district — realized as much, and they hatched a plan.

Now, Cruz doesn’t drive past it. She lives on it — in a district-owned, newly constructed apartment complex occupied exclusively by the teachers and staff of Jefferson Union High School District.

It’s an approach that is gaining momentum among public school districts nationwide. Many are dealing with vacancies and educator attrition rates at levels that are not only inconvenient but actually harmful to the staff, students and families in their communities. In a number of places, including the San Francisco Bay Area, exorbitant housing costs are responsible for high teacher turnover rates. So districts, often sitting on vast swaths of underused and undeveloped land, are getting creative.

Jefferson Union High School District is among the first school districts in the country to see its affordable housing project through to completion — staff began moving in over a year ago, and today, the 122-unit complex is fully occupied — but scores of others are not far behind.

In California alone, at least 46 school districts were pursuing workforce housing projects on 83 sites statewide as of March 2022, according to research from the Center for Cities + Schools at the University of California, Berkeley. Projects in North Carolina, Texas, Missouri, Colorado, Illinois and elsewhere are also underway.

As more districts seek to address the housing crisis in their communities — an issue EdSurge explored in depth in a recent story — we wanted to look at the school district in Daly City that, at least for now, has solved its housing woes.

Drawing Up Plans

Before its employee housing program launched in 2022, JUHSD was losing between 20 and 25 percent of its staff every year.

“We kept hearing, ‘It’s not because we don’t want to work here. It’s because we can’t live here,’” says Austin Worden, director of communication and staff housing for the district.

Housing in the Bay Area is notoriously pricey, notes Worden, “but in recent years, the spike is just unreal — just through the roof,” he says. The average rent for apartments in Daly City in 2023 ranges between $2,344 and $3,692 a month, according to “What we’re giving in salary raises doesn’t even compete,” Worden adds.

JUHSD is the lowest-funded high school district in San Mateo County, California, which is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. Teacher salaries in Jefferson Union range from around $62,000 to $107,000 a year, compared to nearby San Mateo Union High School District, where teachers can earn between $79,000 and $148,000 a year.

School districts sometimes raise money by selling bonds, but Jefferson Union leaders knew they wouldn’t be able to use bond funds to increase staff salaries. What they could do with a bond was build. The district had plenty of land and property ripe for development. If housing was the main driver of high turnover rates and district leaders couldn’t adjust salaries in line with housing costs, they thought, why not just build staff housing?

A $33 million voter-approved bond passed in June 2018. The remainder of the $75.5 million housing project was financed through a Certificate of Participation (COP).

The goal, says Worden, was for about a quarter of the district’s 530 staff members to live in the eventual apartment complex, and to price rent for the units about 50 percent below market rates.

In practice, the rental units are around 60 percent of market rates — between $1,350 and $1,580 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in the district-owned building, compared to about $2,400 a month elsewhere, Worden says — so a considerable discount.

By May 2022, staff were moving into the building, which has a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units and includes modern appliances and amenities such as a fitness center, common rooms with workspaces, playgrounds, community centers and parking.

The new 122-unit apartment complex was built on an old parking lot and is now occupied exclusively by teachers and staff. Photo courtesy of Jefferson Union High School District.

“It’s stunning,” Worden says of the building. “The goal was to create a product that was on par with at-market rate [alternatives]. It rivals buildings I’ve seen in San Francisco.”

He remembers giving tours to interested staff and reveling in their “oohs” and “ahhs” as they walked into individual units. Many hadn’t known what to expect of the district’s development, but once in the building, he says, they were impressed.

Colleagues as Neighbors

Cruz was one of the employees who found herself pleasantly surprised by the finished product.

The 67-year-old remembers hearing about the plan to develop educator workforce housing a few years ago and says she started angling for a unit in the new complex “the minute they started building.”

“Housing is extremely difficult here,” says Cruz, who was born and raised in San Francisco. “None of us is getting paid what we’re worth.”

She and her husband had been paying more in rent than they felt comfortable with to live in an apartment building in Daly City that she describes as rundown. On their modest salaries — she is an administrative assistant to a high school principal at JUHSD, and her husband drives a mail truck for the San Francisco Unified School District — they were maxed out.

“We were paying more and more each year for less and less,” Cruz says, explaining that their rent would always go up even as the conditions of the building deteriorated.

So when Cruz learned she and her husband would get to move into a two-bedroom unit in the complex last spring — and pay $1,000 less per month than their previous rent — she was thrilled.

“This was a godsend,” she says.

The building is beautiful, and the amenities match those of luxury buildings, Cruz says. But most importantly, it’s affordable.

“This housing project has really afforded people like myself to continue living and working in this area, and it’s also afforded teachers who have never had a place of their own to have a place and not have to work two and three jobs to support themselves,” she explains. “It’s been a pretty remarkable situation.”

For a relatively small school district with about 25 percent of its entire staff housed in one building, residents are bound to see familiar faces in the elevators and along the hallways. Cruz lives in between a colleague she knew from her old job in the district and a counselor at the high school where she currently works.

She regularly runs into her counselor-neighbor at the fitness center, she says. She sees other colleagues in the shared laundry room.

“I had to get used to, ‘OK, you guys are going to see me in my sloppy clothes,’” Cruz shares. But she actually relishes living in a community with her district coworkers.

“There’s a certain amount of pride in taking care of the place we’re all living and supporting each other,” Cruz says. “I like parking next to people where I know I don’t want to hit their car and they don’t want to hit mine. It’s familiar without being intrusive.”

Problem Solved?

One year into living in district housing, Cruz has noticed that turnover seems to have slowed, at least at her school.

“This year was the first time we haven’t had to replace 10 teachers at the end of the school year,” she says.

District leaders say it’s too soon to make sweeping assessments about the turnover. They don’t expect to have “solid data” until December, says Tina Van Raaphorst, JUHSD’s deputy superintendent of business services. But what she does have is anecdotal evidence, and that looks promising.

JUHSD started the 2022-23 school year — the first full year since opening the apartment building — with all teaching positions filled, “at a time when some other districts in our area and statewide were not able to find enough teachers,” Van Raaphorst shared in an email. She’s heard from at least two teachers who say they stayed in the district because of the employee housing and from others who say they have been able to take on coaching opportunities and other extracurriculars for the district because their commute is shorter or they don’t have to work a second job in the evenings.

Worden, the director of staff housing, shares that the housing benefit has helped with recruitment, too. The district hired a teacher who came up from Los Angeles after hearing about the staff housing. Another teacher from North Carolina who’d always wanted to teach and live in the Bay Area decided to make the cross-country move after learning she could live in the district’s subsidized housing.

“We’re already seeing the positive benefits of it,” Worden says.

So, is that it? Is the problem solved at JUHSD?

In the short term, yes, Worden says.

The one hang-up is that, at present, residents have been told they can live in the district-owned apartment for five years. The idea is to “encourage residents to financially save for their future home,” Worden says, “along with this giving space to future employees wanting the opportunity to live in the educational housing building.”

Cruz is skeptical that anyone in the district — a teacher, or a school support staff member like her — will be able to save enough money in five years to buy a home in the area. The rent is a major improvement over what many residents were paying, but in many places, those prices would still be eye-popping.

That five-year limit is not locked in, though, Worden notes. It has the potential to be extended, depending on demand for the district housing. (There is currently a waitlist for the units.)

So far, the project has been such a success that Worden hopes to see more school districts using their land assets for educator housing. Based on how many have inquired about the project and asked to tour the complex, it seems likely he soon will.

He often tells other district leaders to get creative. Do they have an old athletic field they could build on? Or maybe, as in the case of JUHSD, an empty parking lot?

As for Cruz, she is staying put for as long as she’s allowed.

“The rent is so affordable that I’m afraid to stop working,” she says. “I really don’t think I’m going to have the opportunity to retire anytime soon, so I feel like I’m winging it right now. I’ll just keep working as long as I can, and we’ll keep living here.”

And once her time is up? Well, luckily, her husband’s school district has broken ground on its own affordable housing project for educators. Maybe next, the couple will call that community home.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up