Sonoma County education office buys Santa Rosa property for staff housing

Initial plans envision 60 or more units that will prioritize educators in Sonoma County.|

Five years ago, the Sonoma County Office of Education surveyed its public school employees. They found that new teachers tended to stay in the county anywhere from one to five years.

The primary reason respondents gave for leaving? A lack of quality affordable housing.

The education office is taking a hands-on approach to helping teachers and other school staff clear that hurdle.

On Nov. 30, SCOE completed the purchase of a residential property on Juniper Avenue in the Bellevue neighborhood in southwest Santa Rosa next to the Amarosa Academy campus.

It seeks to build high-density housing — the initial plan envisions at least 60-70 units — that will prioritize educators.

“Building housing that school staff can afford is essential to our mission of serving students,” incoming county Superintendent of Schools Amie Carter said in a statement announcing the purchase. “This housing will help us realize our goal of strengthening and diversifying our educational workforce.”

The sale price was $630,000. A single-family home and some outbuildings currently sit on the lot.

SCOE has dubbed the project Casitas de Amorosa. The Juniper Avenue parcel is “a home run,” according to Greg Medici, the deputy superintendent in charge of SCOE’s Business Support Services Department.

For one thing, the property, combined with Amarosa Academy — an alternative education campus that education office administers directly — and another adjacent SCOE-owned lot, is ideally shaped for a housing project. The overall footprint is an elongated rectangle with no doglegs.

Just as important, Medici noted, the site is centrally located in a county comprising 1,768 square miles and 40 school districts. “We estimate it’s within a half-hour’s drive of probably two-thirds to three-quarters of our campuses,” he said.

That would include all of Santa Rosa City Schools and large districts in Rohnert Park-Cotati and Petaluma.

Getting the connecting property rezoned from industrial to residential will be one of the crucial steps moving forward.

“I sense through general conversations … that there is support across agencies,” Medici said.

SCOE leaders feel confident the zoning change can be resolved, Medici said. There is residential zoning literally across the street from the SCOE-owned industrial site, as well at other nearby parcels.

The need for accommodation isn’t hard to understand — in Sonoma County, or throughout California.

While housing prices have climbed across the state, the majority of its nearly 1,000 local educational agencies offer entry-level teacher salaries below the area median income, according to an executive summary produced earlier this year by researchers at UC Berkeley and UCLA. There are also racial disparities embedded in the staffing challenges.

“Teachers of color are already underrepresented among California’s public educators, and they are more likely to experience housing cost burdens,” the report stated. “Staffing challenges are even more acute in (agencies) enrolling low-income and historically underserved students, where they have long suffered higher rates of both teacher turnover and teachers with substandard credentials.”

To narrow this gap, the state is encouraging educational agencies to take a more active role in allocating housing. Some have responded.

Two California school districts — Santa Clara Unified and Los Angeles Unified — have combined to complete four education workforce housing developments. One of them, Santa Clara Unified’s Casa del Maestro, helped reduce the attrition rate by two-thirds for teachers supported by the development, compared with others in the same cohort. And 80% of tenants were staying the full allowable rental term, the UC researchers wrote.

Between June 2018 and November 2020, the UC report noted, eight state educational agencies put propositions or measures before local voters to fund campus workforce housing. Six of the measures passed.

Still, Medici didn’t know of any similar projects involving a purchase by a county office of education. He and others at SCOE hope this could become a model.

Assembly Bill 2295, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October, could help. It permits districts to convert unused school property into housing.

That bill, and others with a similar aim, didn’t necessarily offer SCOE any mechanisms for developing the Juniper Avenue site, Medici said. But they might help on future projects.

This one won’t necessarily be an easy process.

In 2018, Sonoma State University bought a Petaluma apartment complex to house university employees and spent $40 million to redevelop it. Three years later, demand for units was so low that the university to open the space to the general public.

SCOE can learn from that experience, Medici said. But he doesn’t believe it’s an apt comparison, because the pool of candidates among Sonoma County’s public schools is so much larger than one college campus.

“We are well in excess of 5,000 employees, perhaps approaching 10,000 employees,” Medici said. “We’re confident the scale of units (on Juniper Ave.) will have significant demand. I just hope we can get to stage 2, 3 and 4, where we can meet future demand.”

Assuming the units get built, there will be other issues for SCOE to sort out, such as setting rental prices and determining who gets in if there’s an excess of demand.

“This is not intended, per se, as once someone gets in, then for the next 40 years they have exclusive access,” Medici said. “It’s intended to bridge the first few years of employment in the region. Or for someone who is a veteran in the region, as a bridge to housing ownership.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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