‘I can’t afford to live where I teach’: Teachers discuss the rising cost of living in the Bay Area

March 31, 2020 — by Manasi Garg and Jessica Wang

In 1992, as a young history and English teacher, Mike Davey managed to get a loan to buy a house in Campbell for $225,000. Today, nearly three decades later, he said that the property is worth $1.7 million. 

“In today’s market, that’s surreal,” he said. “There’s no way I’d be able to even afford making a down payment on that house today, not on my current salary.” 

Like many others who have lived and worked in the Bay Area for the past few decades, Davey has witnessed the exponential increase of the Bay Area’s cost of living. 

Once known for its flourishing communities of artists, alternative culture and beaches, the Bay Area has now become the poster child for income inequality: Rapidly growing homeless camps lie on the edge of gleaming technology companies and quiet suburbs. 

These images exemplify the Bay Area housing crisis. 

Simply put, there is too much demand and not enough supply, and state laws, such as those protecting the environment, prevent any rapid construction of new housing. As a result, it’s often only the wealthy who can afford to live in comfort — that is, those making well over $350,000 annually, according to CNBC. Low-income, and even middle-class wage earners such as teachers are being priced out and fleeing the area. 

 

Causes of the housing crisis

Since the 1960s, many Bay Area cities have implemented strict zoning regulations, which dictate how residential land can be used. According to The New York Times, San Jose reserves 94 percent of its residential land for single family homes, prohibiting denser housing options like apartments or duplexes from being built. This, in turn, allows fewer people to live in the region. 

But after the tech boom in the 1980s, where rapid economic growth precipitated due to the rise of tech companies like Apple, there wasn’t enough housing to accommodate the subsequent influx of people looking for jobs in the Silicon Valley. 

Then, in 2011, the housing shortage became a housing crisis when former Governor Jerry Brown cut the state’s 400 or so Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs), city-level agencies for urban development, in response to financial mishandling during the 2008 recession. Since these programs funded the building and maintenance of affordable housing, their removal, along with a wave of immigration of high tech workers, has led to housing prices increasing by 91 percent from 2012-2019. 

Now, due to overwhelming demand mixed with a lack of funding for low-income housing and zoning regulations, the crisis is getting worse. In fact, according to the Building Industry Association for the Bay Area, for every five jobs created in the Bay Area, only one home is added. 

According to Zillow, the average family home in Saratoga costs $2.6 million, and across the Bay Area, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is twice the national average at $2,800, with some costing upwards of $4,355 per month in especially affluent cities such as Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Los Gatos. A quick Zillow search revealed that a three-bedroom, two-bath house in Saratoga usually rents for between $5,000 and $7,000 a month and sometimes higher.

For educators, these high prices make it increasingly difficult to both live and teach here. 

“I’ve only been here for 11-12 years, but I’ve noticed there’s no ceiling on housing costs,” English teacher Amy Keys said. “People keep saying ‘It’s a bubble, it’ll burst,’ but housing prices just keep going up and up and up while salaries are not keeping pace.”

 

Salary concerns

According to CNBC, a yearly income of $117,000 for a four-person family living in San Francisco is considered low income.

Human Resources Director Brian Safine said that new hires typically make around $67,775 in their first year. As teachers continue to gain years of work experience in the Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District or obtain more education credentials, their salaries increase based on a negotiated salary schedule. In the most recent agreement, the upper limit for salaries in the district is $134,375, which requires a master’s degree or doctorate and 36 years of teaching experience. 

Long-term teachers who bought housing in the ‘90s and early 2000s and earn salaries on the high end have been able to remain in the area. However, there are concerns that younger teachers in an increasingly pricey market will not be able to stay long term.

Two recently hired teachers, history teacher Melissa Hesselgrave, who joined the staff in the 2018-2019 school year, and math teacher Lisa Ginestet-Araki, who joined the staff at the beginning of this school year, have seen the difficulty of living on teacher’s salary in the Bay Area. 

“The general advice is to spend about 30 percent of your income on housing,” Ginestet-Araki said. “But sometimes [my husband and I] spend over half of our income on housing. It’s not right, but it’s just the reality here.” 

Hesselgrave also acknowledged the difference of living in a single income versus in a dual-income household. 

“It’s easier now, because I’m married and sharing that space,” Hesselgrave said. “But when I was single, a majority of my salary went to housing.” 

Some teachers have expressed frustration that wages have stagnated and the district has fallen short in benefits and compensation over the last few years.

Davey said that when he started teaching at Saratoga High, the Los Gatos Saratoga Union High School District (LGSUHSD) was among the top two districts in the Bay Area in terms of salary. But in the 27 years he has taught here, the district has “lost out to inflation” the past 21 years, and many other districts have surpassed LGSUHSD in terms of salaries. 

“I’m a little disappointed in how the [LGSUHSD] district has compensated teachers,” Davey said.  

The District Teachers Association, the teachers’ union for the LGSUHSD district, consists of 193 teachers across the school district. It negotiates salaries, benefits and working conditions for its members. The district and DTA are currently in negotiations on a two-year agreement.

Although principal Greg Louie declined to comment on specifics on this year’s negotiations, he acknowledged the salary struggles that educators often face in the area. 

“When it comes down to it, the living wage of a person in education is documented widely, and it often doesn’t necessarily meet the community standards for living wages,” he said. “The simple fact is we have so many staff members who live in distant places like Santa Cruz, Morgan Hill, Gilroy. If the living wages at those schools were comparable [to Saratoga], they’d just work in their own home communities.”

 

Separation from community

At Saratoga High, teachers must go to great lengths to keep their costs low and be able to live anywhere close to the school.

“We have a really high percentage of teachers that live in Santa Cruz and even San Jose because the cost of living is lower than it would be in Saratoga,” Biology teacher Lisa Cochrum said. 

Keys, for example, lives in faculty housing at the University of California Santa Cruz because her husband is a professor there, a situation that has cut the cost of her housing. Ginestet-Araki and Hesselgrave said that many teachers they know also are part of dual-income homes, which helps them keep up with housing costs. Davey said that he, like other longtime teachers in the district, has not been priced out because he purchased his house so long ago.

Cochrum said that her family’s financial contributions to her condominium’s down payment were the main reason she could afford to live in the area. She said that when she bought her $300,000 condominium in Cupertino in 1998, her family loaned her $100,000. 

“I know most, if not all, of my teacher friends who own homes either have a spouse who has an exceedingly high paying job or they have family money,” Cochrum said, “and 90 percent of the people I’m thinking of have both.”

Although most teachers are skilled at budgeting and saving to ensure financial security, there is still a prevalent physical barrier many teachers here find hard to endure: a daily long commute. 

Just driving from Santa Cruz to Saratoga and back during rush hours can take about two hours or more on a bad day. This means that educators often can’t be fully integrated in the communities they teach in, a source of frustration for them. 

Many say they’d love to attend sports and music events more regularly, but they often occur at night and they can’t drive back to the school to see them.

 “Teachers come to Saratoga and other affluent areas to work because the schools are better funded,” said Keys. “But I can’t afford to live where I teach.” 

 

Subsidized housing

One potential solution to the housing shortage is subsidized employee housing, something some school districts such as Santa Clara Unified have introduced in order to attract new teachers and stop the flow of teachers leaving their schools. In essence, school districts act as both employers and landlords for teachers. 

Currently, there are no such projects in the pipeline for LGSUHSD. 

“Subsidized housing is, I think, essential for all school districts for all areas if we’re really trying to build and reinvigorate the school community,” Louie said. “And in order to do that, you have to build something for teachers and make it affordable. But I’m not sure of the logistics of how practical [subsidized housing] is for Saratoga.”

In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown passed the Teacher Housing Act, which authorizes school districts to establish affordable housing incentives for their staff.

Other school districts have either approved or are considering subsidized housing for teachers, including the San Jose Unified School District. 

Many teachers who were interviewed agreed that subsidized housing is an important way to assist young teachers. However, there were still some concerns as to how effective it could be in the long run. 

Subsidized housing for teachers has often come with limits. Renters in Santa Clara’s Housing project are able to stay for a maximum of seven years. For teachers seeking long-term positions at a single district, this solution may be too short term to be viable. 

But Hesselgrave said that for younger teachers, such as herself, this non-permanency could be more enticing than anything long-term. She expressed her doubts about any long-term subsidized housing plans.  

“I think a lot of the programs that require that you buy a house or something more permanent are not necessarily an option, especially for younger teachers,” Hesselgrave said. “Even if subsidized housing were offered, I don't think I would be in the place to make a commitment to live in a certain place. My generation is not ready to buy at this point.” 

Some affordable housing projects in wealthier areas of the Bay Area tend to face backlash from locals. In 2018, Sandhill Property Co. introduced a redevelopment plan for the old Vallco Shopping Center in Cupertino. The project included 2,402 units.

Although the project was eventually approved in September 2018, many Cupertino residents strongly opposed the redevelopment plan, voicing concerns about “increased congestion along main roads” and “the effect of lower income students in local schools,” according to CBS SF Bay Area

In October 2018, a nonprofit citizens group called Friends of Better Cupertino filed a lawsuit against the approval. More recently, Sandhill Property Co. filed a separate lawsuit, claiming that the city had changed its zoning laws in order to eliminate the project.

The Santa Clara County Superior Court heard these arguments in December and has yet to issue a ruling.

Keys said she thought such reactions are indicative of  longstanding NIMBY attitudes.

“It’s gotten so contentious, living in this hyper capitalistic, ‘win or take all’ situation,” Keys said, “You would think teachers would be pretty good neighbors to have. They’re boring — they go home and do work. Like, we’re not going to be having keg parties.” 

 

A foggy future 

For younger teachers, the combination of taking on longer commutes to secure financially advantageous jobs and  skyrocketing housing prices spells uncertainty for the future, and may deter those seeking to enter the profession, especially in the Bay Area.

Although Ginestet-Araki said that she sees her teaching career at SHS as long-term commitment because she loves the school, she can’t help but consider how her life could be different if she lived elsewhere.

“[My husband and I]  have friends that are our same exact age and they live down in San Diego,” she said. “They just bought their second house and they have a house that's probably double the size of ours and it was much cheaper than ours. I love it here, and my family is all here, but stuff like that can be kind of discouraging.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the nationwide teacher shortage is projected to reach 200,000 fewer credentialed teachers than needed by 2025. The number of graduate students enrolled in teacher preparation programs has also decreased by one third since 2010.

The Learning Policy Institute found similar trends in California. A 2017 survey of over 200 California school districts revealed that 75 percent of them were experiencing teacher shortages. 

Hesselgrave said that if prices continue to rise, it will become increasingly difficult for young teachers to try to build a life in the Bay Area, pushing them to find jobs elsewhere or work in more lucrative fields. 

“We might be forced to uproot,” she said of herself and other new teachers. “I hope that doesn’t happen, but if you decide to have kids, or have to take care of your parents, you won’t be able to devote so much income to rent. It’s unsustainable.”

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Due to the lightning complex that occurred in the week of Aug.17, Santa Clara County is currently surrounded by wildfires, covering the city of Saratoga in heavy smoke. The air quality was in the range of 100 to 200 for the past five days, forcing SHS to close down. Photo by Selina Chen.

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