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PD Editorial: Finding homes for local teachers

In today’s letters, a reader takes issue with a plan by the Santa Rosa City Schools District to build housing for teachers on a plot of land in Fountaingrove that was set aside long ago for a school. “I believe this is a gross misuse of public funds,” she wrote.

We would agree if the plan is to benefit only a few employees. But we don’t believe that is the case. The goal is to meet a broader need.

A week ago, a story by Staff Writer Robert Digitale focused on the resurgence of the local housing construction industry. It noted that Sonoma County builders are working on more than 20 projects from Petaluma to Windsor for a total of 1,400 units. That’s welcome news for a region that saw the fewest homes built last year in 45 years - and a market that has seen rents and sale prices soar while vacancy rates for rentals hover at a negligible 2-3 percent. But we doubt whether any of these new units are being built for teachers or will be in their price range.

Sonoma County will always need educators. What’s not clear is whether the county will always have housing for them.

At a housing conference in Petaluma in May, Steve Herrington, superintendent of schools in Sonoma County, noted that the median annual teacher salary in the county is $66,688, meaning only about 4 percent of new educators in the county can afford to buy a home. Given that nearly a third of teachers in the county are over age 55, Sonoma County is going to need to recruit a wave of new educators and ensure they have a place to call home.

That won’t be easy given that median rents in the county are roughly $1,600 a month.

Sonoma County is not alone in dealing with this dilemma. That’s why city and school district officials in San Francisco announced plans in October to build 100 affordable apartments for teachers on one of the district’s 11 surplus property sites. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, similar plans are in the works in Oakland, Los Angeles, Santa Clara and elsewhere. For those reasons, the Santa Rosa school board is on target in wanting to use the 6-acre Fir Ridge Drive property, which the school district bought for $190,000 nearly 20 years ago, for housing. The challenge will be in figuring how to pay for it and how to manage it in such a way that the 35-40 units on the site will help more than a handful of teachers in the long run.

At one time, the district had a developer picked out and a plan to build condominiums to be sold primary to teachers for low-performing schools. But that was before the economy went in the tank and the market changed significantly. Some new thinking is required.

Given that the school district is more in the business of building young minds than constructing homes, a better approach this time may be in partnership with a community organization, such as Burbank Housing, that has experience in the area of building and managing low- and moderate-income properties. The district also would be wise to learn from other districts,such as the San Mateo Community College District, which has used tax-free financing to pay for construction while using rents to pay off bank loans. Either way, the district is blazing a trail that other local districts and public entities will likely need to follow - ensuring housing for their labor force in the years ahead. It won’t be an easy path, but there may be no way around it.

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