Prospects dimmed for affordable housing for San Francisco educators

Pandemic, school budget woes stall three proposed projects

Building low-cost housing for educators in San Francisco — so that teachers and staff can afford to live in the city where they teach — was a bright promise that appeared ready to shine in 2019.

But while four educator housing projects were in the works for The City back then, only one has made it past the drawing board. The others have, at least temporarily, fallen victim to the pandemic and the San Francisco Unified School District’s dire budget crisis.

The survivor is Shirley Chisholm Village, a 135-unit affordable housing building on school property in the Outer Sunset. Construction will begin at 1530 43rd Ave. next year and educators making between 40% to 120% of area median income — or $37,300 to $111,900 for a one-person household — will be able to occupy the building in 2024, according to nonprofit developer MidPen Housing.

The project, named after the educator and first Black woman elected to Congress, was the first of its kind in San Francisco, and 2019 became a banner year for the model. Voters that year approved Proposition A, a $600 million bond for affordable housing that dedicated $20 million to educator housing. They also passed Proposition E, which allowed affordable housing to be built on public land after a political battle over area median income qualifications.

Educator housing “requires action, it requires money,” said Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators of San Francisco. “We need city leaders to step up and act on it. Ultimately, if we’re trying to make sure we have a healthy and thriving city and healthy and thriving economy then that means you have to have healthy and thriving workers.”

Back in 2019, the San Francisco Unified School District board approved a resolution setting a goal of developing 550 units of housing for teachers and paraeducators by 2030. The district identified three additional sites to pursue housing for educators: an Inner Sunset property at Seventh Avenue and Lawton Street, a site at 200 Middle Point Road in Bayview and at 20 Cook St.

The need, then as now, is very real. The median annual income of educators and support staff is $77,617, according to Housing Our Workers, a new report by affordable housing advocates and labor groups. This compares with an area median income of $93,250. In the Bay Area, educators can end up spending more than half their income on rent and long commutes. These costs have contributed to a 10% annual attrition rate and unstable classrooms.

But the early promise of educator housing was stalled by two factors. COVID hit and halted much of the momentum. The crisis was compounded by the district being put on watch by state administrators over its structural deficit.

Moving forward on the three projects on district land soon will be tough considering the district has to come up with a plan to cut $125 million for the next school year by December. The school district put out a request for qualifications in 2019 for future educator housing but has “not explored further opportunities for the three sites at this time,” said district spokesperson Laura Dudnick.

“I don’t think the district right now, in the near term, is going to shift (priorities)” said Peter Cohen, co-director of the Community Council of Housing Organizations. “That doesn’t mean it’s the only way to develop educator housing. Does it have to be on district land? I don’t know.”

When asked if and how the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development would be stepping in to maintain the efforts around the three identified sites, spokesperson Max Barnes said, “MOHCD is committed to our ongoing partnership with SFUSD to develop SFUSD-owned sites for teacher housing.”

In the meantime, educators may continue to apply for below-market-rate units through the MOHCD lottery system. That’s how Cathy Sullivan, who has taught kindergarten at Grattan Elementary School since 1998, was able to stabilize her housing.

After being evicted twice and finding rents to be higher when searching for new housing, Sullivan applied for a low-income unit at a SoMa building in the early 2000s and was selected. The rent was half the market rate, Sullivan said. Even then, it was a financial struggle and she “ate a lot of beans and rice” in the first few years.

“It was a complete game-changer,” Sullivan said about getting the low-income unit. “My future in San Francisco would have been in doubt if I had not gotten this condo. I don’t have to spend an hour in traffic to get here, which means I’m a better teacher. I’m relaxed, I’m calm — it’s just a huge weight off my shoulders.”

Sullivan wants that for everyone and is focused on repealing the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which restricts rent control statewide, an effort that fell short in 2018. She was featured in Housing Our Workers, a report by CCHO, San Francisco Labor Council and Jobs with Justice released this week that analyzed the impact of high housing costs on low-income workers.

The report, with data analysis from the UC Berkeley Labor Center, found that more than 40% of workers live outside The City and just 7% of essential workers studied can afford market-rate rents in San Francisco.

With median rents for a two-bedroom apartment at $2,771 a month in October, according to rental company Apartment List, living in The City is out of reach for people who work in sanitation, security, transit, health care, social work, nonprofit and public sector workers, to name just a few.

“The educator community was really the first labor sector to focus on housing,” Cohen said. “They understood early on the existing threat of housing to their viability of workforce. We’re hoping that this Housing Our Workers effort reevaluates issues of where the heck our city workers are going to live. It’s about rebuilding political momentum.”

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