Bay Area Affordability Crisis Spurs Young Activists to Fight for Teacher Housing

Azalea Renfield (left) works with volunteers to help teachers find housing. (Stephanie Martin Taylor/KQED)

About a dozen volunteers -- mostly in their 20s and 30s -- are gathered around a dining table in a sleek high-rise apartment near downtown San Francisco.

Among those eating pizza and settling in for the evening's meeting are recent college graduates, a business executive and a few real estate professionals. Several had parents who were public school teachers.

"None of us are teachers, but everybody in this room -- a teacher has touched their life," explained Azalea
Renfield, 32. "That's the common thing that keeps us all together."

Renfield is the leader of this fledgling nonprofit, called United Educators Association for Affordable Housing (UEAAH).  She said she started it because she believes teachers deserve to live in or near the communities they serve, even if it's pricy San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

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UEAAH members ultimately want to develop and oversee several teacher housing programs. For example, one would help find low-interest home loans; another would connect teachers with landlords willing to  give educators a break on rent. Right now, their primary concern is boosting their tiny budget. Ready or not, though, the group is already hearing from teachers who need help.

Cindy's Story

Cindy Lundberg said she was feeling pretty panicked when she first contacted UEAAH this fall. Lundberg is the mother of three girls, is separated from her husband and works at Graham Middle School in Mountain View.

The average teacher salary in this district is $65,000 -- not bad in many parts of the country. But in Google's hometown, the median home value is $1 million and the average rent is just under $3,000 a month.

There's no rent control in Mountain View either. Lundberg said she learned that the hard way, when her apartment complex posted a note on her door informing her that her monthly rent was going up -- by about 30 percent.

"It just made me cry, because I was like, 'How can someone do this to me? How can they just raise the rent that dramatically and put a little note on your door?' It just felt really cold," Lundberg said.

Apartment managers wouldn't negotiate, she said. But the receptionist was sympathetic and passed along a business card from Renfield's organization.

"I was starting to get panicked because I knew I had a month to get out," Lundberg said. "And I was like, 'I can't find a place and maybe these guys can help me.' "

UEAAH volunteer Olivia Casey spoke with Lundberg about where she wanted to look and then jumped in with the search.

"She was mainly looking at Craigslist, and I helped her look at some other places and some other websites I knew about in Mountain View," Casey said.

They ran into roadblock after roadblock: Rents were too high, landlords wouldn't negotiate and the competition for rental properties was intense.

Rising rents in Mountain View pushed school teacher Cindy Lundberg out of her apartment complex.
Rising rents in Mountain View pushed school teacher Cindy Lundberg out of her apartment complex. (Stephanie Martin Taylor/KQED)

Lundberg worried that she might have to move out of the area altogether. Graham Middle School Principal Kim Thompson said, unfortunately, that's not unusual in Mountain View.  A special education teacher recently left for Sacramento because she wanted to buy a house and couldn't find anything nearby.

"She was a solid, solid special ed, which are hard to come by," Thompson said. "It's hard on me, it's hard on kids when you find someone of top quality and they're wanting a house," she added.

In the end, Lundberg met a landlord in nearby Cupertino who agreed to negotiate a lower rent.  She found the place herself but, she said, she's still really grateful for the extra help.

"I thought it was really neat that there was an organization out there that wanted to reach out to teachers like that," Lundberg said. "I thought that was really, really powerful and great to see."

The group admits it doesn't yet have the power to help every teacher -- it still needs a lot of money and support to make its work sustainable. Renfield said their most ambitious goal reaches far beyond the Bay Area: They want to convince Congress to give every public school teacher a basic housing stipend, just as it does with the military.

Texas Boomtown Tries Teacher Stipends

In 2013, public school teachers in Midland, Texas, were facing a similar housing crunch -- although it was the booming oil and gas industry, not technology, pushing apartment rents out of reach.  Unable to recruit enough new teachers, especially in math and science, the superintendent called on a group of local business and nonprofit leaders to come up with a solution.

"They sat around a table and, almost like a poker game, the people who could make those decisions anted up," said Jami Owen, executive director of the Midland Education Foundation.

Thanks to a successful fundraising campaign, Midland's new teachers are now offered a choice between a $10,000 signing bonus or a one-year housing allowance of $500 a month.

"The plan is working," Owen said. "We needed 400 teachers at the beginning of last year, and we had 2,500 candidates apply. We don't have to fight over math and science teachers anymore for the high schools and the secondary level."

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Curious about the boom/bust cycle that is reshaping the Bay Area? Check out our Boomtown series.

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