Written by Clara Kieschnick-Llamas
Gunn teachers spoke about the lack of affordable housing in Palo Alto at the school board meeting on Jan. 26, discussing the impact of the housing crisis on their interactions with students and their availability for school activities.
Most teachers at Gunn have to commute every day, due to an increased price for housing in the area; according to English teacher and school board speaker Tarn Wilson, this has led to teachers being unable to attend to students’ needs. Wilson had to move from Mountain View, where it was only a fifteen-minute commute to Gunn, to San Jose a year and a half ago to afford a house. “When I lived in Mountain View I could tutor after school, go to a lot of school events, I could do clubs—I could just be on campus often and come and go really easily,” she said. “But now, because traffic is generally an hour’s commute, I don’t really know what’s happening in Palo Alto anymore, so I’m not as much a part of the community as I’d like to be.”
According to English teacher Danielle Kovacich, living situations are not ideal, even with houses being so far away. As she started working here only last year, Kovacich has a lower salary than the average teacher, who has worked here longer. She lives on the border of San Jose and Milpitas. “[My fiancé and I] live in an apartment that’s just under 800 square feet. It’s a one bedroom, [and] we pay $2600 a month,” she said.
One of the major reasons for the exorbitant prices is the concentration of high income earners, lured in by the tech boom that has exploded over the past ten years. Government census figures report that the San Jose-Santa Clara-Sunnyvale metro area has the second highest concentration of people earning salaries in the top five percent in the country.
Teacher salaries in Palo Alto are getting extremely competitive with those of nearby cities. According to “Palo Alto Online,” while the mean teacher salary in the Mountain View Los Altos High School district is $101,000, a Palo Alto teacher’s salary is $86,000.
According to real estate website Trulia, the average selling price for a house in Palo Alto is a little over two million dollars, whereas the average price for a house in San Jose is seven hundred thousand dollars.
However, price is not the only issue teachers are facing. Availability of houses in Palo Alto is drastically different from those in surrounding areas. On real estate website Zillow, there are 47 homes for sale in Palo Alto. In San Jose, there are 1,382.
When this issue was raised on “Palo Alto Online,” many commenters argued that teacher salaries aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be. “A lot of those comments were comparing our top salary bracket—somebody who’s worked here thirty years,” Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA) President Teri Baldwin said. “That’s a small percentage of our teachers—most of us are not at that wage. You can’t just take our top little bracket and say that [all] our teachers are there.”
Although young teachers are still coming to Palo Alto, English teacher and PAEA executive board member Marc Igler argues that they won’t stay for long. “After a couple of years, you’re going to realize, ‘I’m never going to be able to save money paying this much for housing on a teacher’s salary; I’m never going to be able to take a summer trip to Europe; I’m never going to be able to buy a new car,’” he said. “And so you take a job somewhere where you can save more money.”
Wilson worries that as the housing market becomes more competitive the diversity of not only students but also teachers will change. “If you get out of college with a lot of student loans, you have to pay those back, so you don’t have money put away for a down payment. You won’t attract certain teachers,” she said.
Kovacich agrees that the cost of living will affect her future. “I would like to go back and get my Master’s, [but it’s] unattainable at this point,” she said.
Igler says that the housing market is not only pushing teachers out of Palo Alto—it’s discouraging them from coming. “Palo Alto has not been able to hire its first or its second choice job candidates, because they get here and they have to pay so much money,” he said.
The Cupertino Union School District has suffered the same issue of unaffordable housing for teachers. To address the problem, the district is building 200 housing units for teachers on district-owned property, a move Igler thinks could be applied to Palo Alto. “The old Cubberley campus is sort of in play at the moment,” he said. “I would hope that they might think of doing something [there] like Cupertino school district.”
Baldwin argues that teachers’ demands are not unreasonable. “We do love our jobs, and there’s no question about that,” she said. “But we have to make a living, too. We’re not asking for what people at Google and Facebook make. We’re asking to make a livable wage in this area—to be able to afford to live within a reasonable distance. That’s all we’re asking.”