California is a state so well-known for commutes that they have created a warning system and unique word for terrible traffic. And it’s in this state where some teachers face longer than two-hour commutes before and after school.

The San Jose Unified School District is losing talent in droves, from being turned down by potential new hires to losing current staff, because of this nightmarish commute. San Jose isn’t a far-flung location, so what creates this problem? Cost of living.

San Jose is the least affordable place to live in America.  The average San Jose homeowner needs to spend more than half of their income on their mortgage.

San Jose Unified has a solution, though. The school district is calling for San Jose schools to be relocated, existing buildings would be demolished and housing would be constructed in its place. They would then provide that housing to teachers and other district employees.

Residents are in an uproar over the idea — not because teachers aren’t being paid enough to live where they teach, but because they don’t want low-income housing in San Jose.

“The only reason we’re looking at the properties is that fear that in 10 years if the Google development happens downtown, and downtown becomes a high-cost area for housing … there won’t be classroom teachers in San Jose Unified,” said deputy superintendent Stephen McMahon. “Where are they going to live?”

That question is at the forefront of a lot of minds in California and the Bay Area specifically. Entirely separate from San Jose Unified’s plans, the city has added a $1 billion bond measure to the November ballot to help ease the affordability crisis in the city. The State also has Prop 1 this November, which would fund eight different programs to help bolster affordable housing.

While some of this goes to classic low-income housing, the entirety of the San Jose United proposal would go to what’s called “workforce housing,” a type of housing dedicated to civil servants who make too much for low-income projects but too little to live in the community they serve.

“There are a lot of public entities that have prioritized housing, particularly what they call ‘workforce housing’ for civil servants and service industry professionals who are working to support the tech millionaires, I guess is the best way to describe it,” Patrick Bernhardt, President of the San Jose Teachers Association, told Grit Post.

He went on to explain that this housing is a far cry from what people imagine when affordable housing is mentioned in the public debate. San Jose Unified has promised that the housing they build will look like part of the community.

“The District’s commitment to the community is that they will build housing that matches the neighborhood aesthetic,” said Bernhardt. “So in some places that would look more like single family homes, or townhouse situations. In the urban core of the district that may look like high-density apartment living.”

Bernhardt isn’t concerned that the focus on housing provided by San Jose United would adversely affect the fight for better pay for teachers. He cited the massive awareness in California that housing is their greatest challenge of the moment, particularly in the Bay Area, at the heart of Silicon Valley. He said there has not even been a hint of de-prioritizing teacher salaries once housing has been addressed.

“There was a backlash almost immediately from particularly the neighbors that surround the school campuses,” said Bernhardt.

One form of the backlash came over the idea that high-performing schools in affluent areas would be moved to new, nearby facilities. Some people who would previously have been close enough to walk no longer would be.

The other form was NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard); the attitude that something seen by a person as inconvenient or upsetting shouldn’t exist near them. Bernhardt recounted local news running footage of homeless people alongside their story on San Jose Unified’s proposal. This attitude, shown by San Jose residents, Bernhardt said teachers found disheartening.

“The descriptions that many of these people in the community have had or are expressing have been hurtful to some of my colleagues,” said Bernhardt, “They seem to suggest that these parents would not want to be neighbors to the teachers who are teaching their children.”

Attempts to conflate this issue with the municipal housing bond are also a source of frustration for San Jose, according to sources in the Mayor’s office. Bernhardt wasn’t surprised.

“I think the Mayor is anxious to draw that distinction because he doesn’t want the potential unpopularity of one housing location to tank his ballot initiative.”


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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