Sonoma County Office of Education may build housing for teachers, employees

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Nicole Rinehart dreamed of one day owning a home as her grandparents and parents had done in Sonoma County on middle-class incomes.

But as housing prices have soared more quickly than her teacher salary, she said it’s unlikely she and her firefighter husband will ever afford a down payment for a house.

“We just welcomed our daughter in July, and it terrifies me that our housing situation is subject to the whims of a landlord who could raise the rent,” said Rinehart, who lives in a two-bedroom condominium in Rohnert Park with her husband, their newborn daughter and two cats.

Rinehart, a lifelong Sonoma County resident and fifth-grade teacher at Village Elementary School in the Rincon Valley Union School District, said their $1,950 monthly rent takes up 60 percent of her teaching income, or 40 percent of their combined household income.

“It seems unfair that as two public servants who give so much time and effort to our communities, we are unable to afford a home in our community,” she said.

The Sonoma County Office of Education is looking for ways to help teachers such as Rinehart.

It’s considering building 30 to 35 town homes for public school teachers and employees who are unable to afford the area’s rising housing costs on 3 acres of land it owns behind Amarosa Academy in southwest Santa Rosa. It’s accepting proposals from affordable housing developers until the end of September.

Twelve developers have expressed interest so far, Sonoma County Schools Superintendent Steve Herrington said.

“Housing is not our priority; education is. We’re just trying to create an avenue of opportunity for our workforce,” he said.

A heightened crisis

For years, the housing crisis has been a major quandary for public school employees that was exacerbated by the October wildfires, which destroyed about 5,300 homes in the county. About 40 percent of Herrington’s employees recently surveyed said they’ve considered leaving the area because of the high housing costs.

“Take that with the teacher shortage, and we’ve got a big problem,” Herrington said. “We need teachers. Schools are the heart of any good community.”

Rinehart, who has taught for four years, said several friends have left the area because of the high cost of living, and she has also considered moving her family to a more affordable area, perhaps in Oregon or Washington.

If the SCOE project comes to fruition, she said she would be interested in living there. On top of her high rent in Rohnert Park, she said her finances are stretched between her $50,000 student loan debt and two car payments.

It could take three years for the project to be completed.

Herrington said priority would likely be given to employees in “hard-to-fill” credentialed positions, such as adaptive physical education teachers who work with disabled students, school nurses, speech and language therapists.

To combat the teacher shortage, his office launched the North Coast School of Education in 2016 to train teachers locally.

Once they receive their credentials through the school, the reality of the area’s cost of living sinks in for many teaching candidates, Herrington said. Many express the need to move away.

“On the one hand, the area is incredibly desirable; on the other hand the area is incredibly expensive,” said David Stecher, school board president of the West Sonoma County Union High School District.

Newer teachers hurt

Newer teachers are more affected by the housing crisis, which creates a major barrier recruiting teachers, Stecher said.

Countywide, only 20 percent of households can afford to purchase a median-priced home in the area, according to the California Association of Realtors. The association based the calculations on a median home price of $695,000, which would require an annual income of at least $147,320.

Meanwhile, a 2016 report from real estate firm found that 0.5 percent of county homes are affordable for teachers, and that was before the fires.

The average teacher salary for the county office of education in the 2016-17 school year was $71,474, while in the Santa Rosa school district it was $73,471, according to the California Department of Education.

“Anything that puts more units in the housing market is going to help everybody,” Stecher said.

Not a new idea

School districts in other parts of the state with high living costs have built housing for teachers. Sixteen years ago, the Santa Clara Unified School District built Casa de Maestro, a suburban neighborhood that now consists of 70 town homes for teachers to rent for up to seven years.

Similarly, the Sonoma County Office of Education would allow renters to stay for five years with the hope that they could afford a down payment on a house over time.

“The idea is you’re saving money because you’re renting at a below-market rate,” Herrington said

He said some public school employees commute from as far away as Lake and Mendocino counties as they search for housing.

“As that commute gets tiresome, they’ll be looking for jobs elsewhere,” Herrington said.

Nancy Thiele, 58, commutes every day from Lake County to Piner High School in northwest Santa Rosa, where she manages the business office. After her Larkfield home was destroyed in October’s Tubbs fire, she moved to a rental near Hidden Valley Lake — unaware there would be several fires this summer.

“We were in shock after the (Tubbs) fire and did not think there would be anywhere to rent here when we lost our home. So we went to Lake County,” she said.

She spends 60 percent of her income on rent, said Thiele, who plans to rebuild her home.

“We love Sonoma County; it is truly our home,” said Thiele, whose three daughters and grandchildren live in the area.

She said the county education office’s proposed housing project likely won’t help classified employees like herself, who perform essential duties for a school to function.

Fountaingrove site

Santa Rosa City Schools has also considered building school employee housing on 6 acres of land it owns on Fir Ridge Drive in Fountaingrove.

Back in 2003, the school board voted to pursue workforce housing on the property. In 2008, a developer was selected to move forward with a plan for 36 condominiums, but the global recession derailed the project. In 2016, the district put out a request for proposals and a year later Bridge Housing presented a feasibility study that included plans for detached units.

The plans have since been discussed in closed sessions, but none are moving forward yet, said Jenni Klose, Santa Rosa school board president. You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707‑521-5216 or On Twitter@susanmini.

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