Community voices its support for affordable housing

Kaahini Jain and Benjamin Huang

Student board representative and Gunn High School senior Arjun Prabhakar (right) voices his opinion on a proposal to build affordable housing for teachers at a PAUSD Board of Education meeting on Tuesday. Prabhakar expressed his support for the proposal, saying that if teachers had the time to attend after-school events instead of spending the time commuting, relationships between students and teachers would improve. “Teachers being able to go to plays, sports games, all those things where you can see teachers in an out-of-classroom context and maybe get to know them better would definitely help all students feel more comfortable with their teachers,” Prabhakar said. Photo: Benjamin Huang.

A project to build affordable housing for Palo Alto Unified School District staff is moving forward after a vocal group of community members, parents and teachers addressed the Board of Education in a meeting on Tuesday in support of the project.

According to county supervisor Joe Simitian, who was present at the meeting and is a driving force behind the project, the county will build between 60 and 120 affordable housing units at 231 Grant Ave. in Palo Alto for teachers and staff to live in.

“When I learned that my district in Mountain View … that a two-bedroom unit there starts at $5300 a month, I started to ask myself, ‘how is that affordable to people making a good middle-class salary?’” Simitian said.

Palo Alto Educators Association president Teri Baldwin said that the district would lose its reputation of providing high-quality education if teachers could not afford to live nearby.

“Palo Alto is known for its excellent schools and great education, but the fear is that we are going to lose great teachers and struggle to recruit new ones because teachers can’t afford to live in this area,” Baldwin said.

Student board representative and Palo Alto High School senior Caroline Furrier said she supported building affordable housing because it allows teachers to build stronger relationships with students.

“Some of my closest relationships with teachers are teachers that I can see at my soccer game or at my brother’s choir performance or at the homecoming football game, and it’s something that brings a group together, so I really support this proposal,” Furrier said.

Gunn High School biology teacher Joshua Little read a letter from English teacher Tarn Wilson detailing Wilson’s struggles with finding affordable housing and the resulting impact on students.

“When I first joined the district, I could afford to live in Mountain View,” the letter stated. “The rent increases drove me to Sunnyvale. Three years ago I was able to purchase a condo in San Jose. I felt grateful for a home, however, the commute is grueling and the traffic gets heavier and more erratic every month. … I spend hardly any time after school doing those activities that build connection and community.”

According to the PAUSD teachers’ salary schedule for the 2018-19 school year, salaries range from $65,093 to $131,343.

While both salaries and home prices in Palo Alto have increased over recent years, home prices in Palo Alto have increased exponentially. The median cost of renting a house in Palo Alto is currently $5,548 per month, according to

Other teachers told stories of the negative effect of long commutes on mental and physical health.

Gunn alumna Jessica Clark read a letter she said was from Andy Bloomberg, her son’s elementary school teacher.

“I’ve begun suffering from insomnia and stress-induced physical symptoms according to my doctor,” the letter stated. “I rarely can get eight hours of sleep before waking at 5 a.m. the next morning. The stress of this daily routine has made it difficult to get a full night’s sleep. I often begin my drive feeling tired and arrive at school exhausted before the day has even begun.”

According to Simitian, the county board of supervisors and the Palo Alto City Council have already paid off $9 million of the estimated $36 million required to build the project, which will consist of apartment-style housing.

Simitian is seeking additional contributions of $600,000 from five school districts including PAUSD, an article by Palo Alto Online stated.

“There’s no guarantee that all five of these districts end up participating,” Simitian said. “If one of them drops out, then there’s more opportunity for others.”

Simitian said that many other details about the project, including the source of the rest of the money, are still to be determined.

“Where the money comes from is part of the conversation that the superintendent is going to want to have with the capable staff and the folks in the community,” Simitian said. “Does it come from a bond measure? Does it come from general funds? Does it come from your local education foundation, PiE [Partners in Education]?”

Trustee Ken Dauber expressed support for the project, but suggested that district staff investigate other alternatives as well.

“Obviously a dozen units … is good, but as supervisor Simitian said, it’s just a drop in the bucket, and we really need to get an understanding of what the range of alternatives [are] that can do more and might have different funding models,” Dauber said.

Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell said she was confident that although the proposed housing was relatively small, it would pave the way for bigger projects.

“When supervisor Simitian first brought this up, I guess I was a little frustrated with it, because it’s only a small amount of housing, but I do think it’s important that we start somewhere,” Baten Caswell said. “If we start somewhere, then I think there will be enthusiasm and new opportunities will come to us and we can get the ball rolling.”