If the bond passes, the district would allocate over $206 million of Measure U funds to “acquire and construct teacher and workforce housing and related facilities.” That could make SDUSD one of the first districts in the county to create housing for its employees.
Like many Californians, the state’s housing costs have hit teachers and school employees hard. According to a 2019 EdSource analysis, first-year teachers are especially impacted. In an email, Samer Naji, SDUSD’s facilities communication supervisor wrote that the rising cost of housing has made it difficult for San Diego teachers to live near the schools in which they work, and that building housing could help retain and recruit staff.
Naji wrote that SDUSD plans to use potential bond funds to build on district-owned land in University Heights that currently houses its central office. It plans to move that office in the coming years to a Kearny Mesa building it acquired in 2019. That University Heights project could produce up to 500 units.
At community meetings, officials said the potential employee housing project would include community amenities and a restoration of the Normal School Annex, which was originally built in 1910. The district hasn’t finalized the project concept and plans to hold additional community meetings before doing so. The district also anticipates building affordable housing at the former Polk Avenue site of Central Elementary School in City Heights once it completes new facilities adjacent to Wilson Middle, just across Interstate 15.
According to Zillow, the median monthly rent in San Diego is around $2,600 for 1-bedroom units, or $31,000 a year, and the median sales price now comes in at around $950,000. Meanwhile, the district says the average yearly pay for teachers is around $88,000. The average for all SDUSD’s non-certificated employees, which includes workers who don’t have a teaching certification and are generally lower-paid like janitorial and clerical staff, is around $41,000. That means even the comparatively higher paid teachers would be spending more than one third of their income on a one-bedroom, while non-certificated employees would have to spend nearly three quarters.
Though no district in the county currently provides housing for employees, the idea has been gaining traction locally and statewide. Only around five projects are currently online in California, but dozens more local education agencies – which can be either school districts or county offices of education – are either developing housing, or have shown interest in doing so, said Troy Flint, chief information officer of the California School Boards Association.
The San Diego Community College District is also working to create employee and student housing at its San Diego City College campus, with the help of state grants rather than bonds. And in 2020, Chula Vista narrowly passed a bond measure that allocated $65 million to building around 100 units of affordable housing for Chula Vista Elementary School District employees. In an email, Giovanna Castro, Chula Vista Elementary’s communications officer said no actions have been taken thus far on its employee housing, but that “CVESD is at the early stage where we are starting to look at possible options for a staff housing project.”
In addition to Chula Vista’s 2020 bond, districts across California have put bond measures with similar housing elements on the ballot in recent years. Of those, around two-thirds have passed. Flint said bonds are an attractive option for funding employee housing because they allow for the development of projects without requiring districts to touch existing revenue streams.
“Each … school district or county office of education has to decide what makes sense for it,” Flint said. “But in general, I think we can expect to see an increase in bond measures as more districts statewide wide pursue education workforce housing projects.”
California has grappled with housing affordability and the pressing need to produce more housing to ease high costs for years. San Diego has complied with state requirements to create a plan to increase its housing stock, but thus far has still fallen woefully short of producing the number of units it needs. Either way, Flint thinks progress has been too slow, and local education agencies need to take action on their own.
“I think there’s an increasing recognition that the state is not proving capable of addressing this problem in a timely fashion or meeting the urgency that this issue deserves, and school districts can’t wait for the state to play the role of savior in terms of wide-reaching policy impact,” Flint said.
“This is not a replacement for strong action at this in the state legislature to promote affordable housing, but it’s something that’s within the control of districts to do locally to make a difference while the state starts to accelerate housing production.”
The San Diego Education Association, the union that represents SDUSD teachers, has endorsed Measure U. Kyle Weinberg, the union’s president, said the high cost of San Diego’s housing is part of the reason for current staffing vacancies. The district echoed that sentiment.
“To have the opportunity to be able to live in the communities that we serve is exciting to us, and to be leaders regionally on this,” Weinberg said. “Hopefully this is just the first of many affordable housing projects within school districts and within municipalities.”
But Weinberg also thinks that any housing project developed with taxpayer-funded bond money needs to have strong oversight and accountability measures and be developed with input from communities, educators and non-SDEA staff.
“Because we wouldn’t be the only ones living in the housing, it could end up being majority workers who aren’t within our union,” Weinberg said, referencing the non-certificated employees who make up the majority of SDUSD’s workforce who often make less than their counterparts. “So we need everyone’s voices included in in how that housing is implemented.”
In an email, the district wrote that all district employees may qualify for housing, but they may choose to prioritize lower-income individuals and families.
Flint is also bullish on the benefits of housing, which he said can help not only with affordability but with workforce stability, particularly in schools with a high number of low-income students that traditionally have high teacher turnover rates. But he warns education agencies need to keep in mind local developmental regulations and doing thorough community impact research on things like traffic from new developments.
Despite forcefully opposing some past bond measures, the San Diego County Taxpayer’s Association endorsed Measure U. Haney Hong, the organization’s president said they support it because the district pledged not to issue controversial capital appreciation bonds, and rather than increasing the current tax rate, Measure U would simply extend it. The organization is also sensitive to the need to build universal transitional kindergarten infrastructure and increase campus security. Still, Hong has mixed feelings about the inclusion of housing in the bond’s spending priorities. He believes SDUSD getting into the property management business could have some upsides, but he’s concerned about how that money will eventually get spent.
“When you have school budgets already as tight as they are … this potentially creates a source of revenue that then could actually be used to address the chronic maintenance challenges that school districts have,” Hong said.
Currently, SDUSD has about tens of millions of dollars in unfunded maintenance each year, which over time compounds and increases. New revenue streams, potentially from rents the district would charge, could mean less need for future bonds, Hong said. But whether that money will go to maintenance costs is his chief concern.
“If a school district is starting to make this money, what’s to stop them from just putting that to more, for instance, things like paying benefits, as opposed to things like maintenance?” Hong said. “Buildings, don’t cry or show up at board meanings, or put people in the office.”
In an email, the district said bond-funded projects are not designed to generate profits, but housing projects created in partnership with developers may generate revenue that can be “reinvested to improve education opportunities for students.”
The increasing momentum has been fueled by a series of bills encouraging education workforce housing development. The Teacher Housing Act in 2016 allowed districts to create affordable housing for employees without requiring that housing be available to others, and made education agencies eligible for low-income housing tax credits to build projects.
More recently, Newsom signed a law allowing districts to build housing on district-owned land without having to rezone that land should the project meet various stipulations.
The push is also animated by one thing local education agencies do seem to have a lot of – land. According to a 2021 study, every county in California has land owned by a local education agency where housing could be developed. The 7,068 properties with over one acre of developable land comes to a combined total of over 75,000 acres – which is about five times the size of Manhattan.
Because of that potential for development, Flint believes the momentum to develop teacher and employee housing on local education agency-owned land will only increase in coming years.
“Housing affordability is so far out of whack with the number of new units that are coming online, and I don’t think this problem is going away anytime soon,” Flint said.
“San Diego, Long Beach, LA, Fresno, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose … I expect that most districts of that profile will either have developed or be in the fairly advanced stages of opening education workforce housing projects within the next decade.”