MEANWHILE, SJUSD ALSO GAINED an incentive to create teacher housing. For years, SJUSD had been losing 200 of its teachers every year, mainly due to housing costs. The district’s budget is limited—82 percent already goes to salaries—so the district is unable to simply raise pay. But if this drain of teachers continues, “there won’t be classroom teachers in San Jose Unified,” warned SJUSD Deputy Superintendent Stephen McMahon, pointing out that the anticipated Google development in downtown San Jose will further drive up housing costs. They need to act—fast.
Last October, SJUSD revealed a proposal to turn nine district-owned properties into new units of affordable housing for its teachers and employees. Officials identified eight schools with old buildings and declining enrollment and suggested bulldozing them and building hundreds of new housing units in their place. The schools would move to another location. Two of those schools, Leland High and Bret Harte Middle, are highly rated schools built in the 1960s in Almaden Valley, a wealthy residential neighborhood in south San Jose—and neighbors roared their displeasure over SJUSD’s proposal.
At the next district meeting, enough alarmed parents, students, and community members from Almaden Valley packed the room that some got locked out. The residents voiced concerns about increased taxes, traffic congestion, construction, their kids’ ability to walk to school, and decreased property values. Most had only just heard about the district’s plan a few days before. The residents felt left out of the decision process, and rumors spread across social media that SJUSD would shut down their schools. Nobody really knew what was going on.
What happened with SJUSD is a classic example of why California’s housing crisis is worsening: Jobs are increasing, but the number of housing units is stagnant. Wage increases are not keeping up with housing cost increases. Many cities are happy to vote for jobs, but not houses. And when officials finally decide to build more housing, they botch it—their typical idea for funding housing projects is to increase taxes or borrow money through bonds, and they fail to engage the community during the planning process. When community members find out about the plan, it comes as a shock. They then push back, fueled by misinformation, stereotypes, and fears, and in the face of such community opposition, city officials back down.
That’s what the residents of Almaden Valley are ready to make happen. Buford Barr, a 75-year-old retired marketer and longtime Almaden Valley resident, told me they’re ready to “fight that to death.” An online petition named “Save Leland and Bret Harte” gained more than 6,450 signatures. Like many others, Barr worried that the district would build high-rise complexes, thus changing the quiet, residential atmosphere of his neighborhood: “It certainly scares me to death. … Huge, huge communities would not fit into Almaden Valley. Look, I’m not trying to hide it—this is an affluent area. This is a very affluent part of the world that shouldn’t be punished because others have unfortunate lives.” Instead, Barr suggested the district should pay their employees more: “We want to support our teachers. This is just not the way to do it.”
Barr bought his house in 1985, just half a mile from Leland High. He saw his two children and two grandsons graduate from that school. Now that school could be demolished to make way for affordable housing, and he worries it would be “a horrific change to my way of life. It’s just going to change everything and make it difficult to enjoy living in Almaden Valley. That may sound superficial, but that’s what life is all about, isn’t it—happiness?”
But for teachers like Sanchez who were also present at that October meeting, the opposition felt more like discrimination. An older couple who sat behind her leaned forward and said to her, “You know the housing isn’t just for teachers, right? It’s for all employees.” As Sanchez sat at the meeting listening to neighbors shout and yell at school district officials, she felt hurt: “It’s like we’re good enough to teach your kids, but we’re not good enough to be your neighbors. … That’s something I will remember forever, that that’s what these people feel about us, even though we work with their kids.”
For now, Sanchez sometimes daydreams of going to law school as she originally planned, but she says she doesn’t regret being a teacher: “I’m going to keep teaching as long as I can. If it gets to a point where I can’t do it anymore, I may have to look at something else, but I hope that day never happens.”