Affordable Housing Plan is News to Some Teachers

In expensive Santa Barbara, baby-boomer teachers own homes on land whose value skyrocketed in the 90s, while for younger teachers, home ownership is an out-of-reach fantasy.

Les Benson, a teacher of 35 years, says he feels lucky to have bought his home on the Mesa in the 1970s for $54,000. Relaxing in his modest house, now worth $1 million, he plays a song he likes to sing with his students. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS
Les Benson, a teacher of 35 years, says he feels lucky to have bought his home on the Mesa in the 1970s for $54,000. Relaxing in his modest house, now worth $1 million, he plays a song he likes to sing with his students. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS

Fifty-seven-year-old Les Benson, a veteran teacher at Cleveland Elementary, lives in a house he purchased with his wife in the 1970s for $54,000. Today, the humble home on the Mesa is worth about $1 million.

Twenty-seven-year-old Becky Lane, a history teacher at Santa Barbara High, lives in a rented house with two roommates — a UCSB student and recent graduate.

Each represents a large cohort of public school teachers in Santa Barbara: those who purchased a home when the gettin’ was good, and those for whom ownership is an out-of-reach fantasy.

The vast majority of the homeowners club consists of teachers on the verge of retirement, and it’s a sizable group: About 45 percent of Santa Barbara’s K-12 teachers are over 50.

“Back then, seven years of a teacher’s salary would buy you a house,” Mr. Benson said. “Today, you need more than 100 years.”

As a result, district officials worry that the Santa Barbara public school system is about to enter a new era of low teacher retention, when young hires use the local schools as a training ground and decamp for more affordable pastures.

To avoid that fate, they’ve proposed a plan to build California’s first for-sale affordable-housing project for teachers and staff members. The proposal could offer a range of options that include detached three-bedroom homes for $490,000, well below the stratospheric local median price of $1.3 million.

The plan has drawn fierce opposition from neighborhood groups.

But, oddly, as the Sept. 30 deadline looms for sending written comments to the district on the matter, teachers’ interest seems tepid.

Becky Lane, left, a 27-year-old teacher at Santa Barbara High School, pitches in with some dishwashing as her roommates, 23-year-old Mary Derby, center, and 20-year-old Allison Low, look on.
Becky Lane, left, a 27-year-old teacher at Santa Barbara High School, pitches in with some dishwashing as her roommates, 23-year-old Mary Derby, center, and 20-year-old Allison Low, look on.

So far, no teachers have spoken in support of the project at any of the handful of school board meetings addressing it. None has submitted letters for the public comment period. The teachers union hasn’t even taken an official stance.

Superintendent Brian Sarvis has urged teachers union president Linda Mitchell to weigh in. But she said she hasn’t the time: The union is focused on the more immediate task of negotiating salaries and benefits with the district.

“I would say we’re pretty neutral,” she said.

The teachers’ silence stands in stark contrast to the impassioned opposition expressed by neighborhood groups. On several occasions, they have packed the house at school board meetings to voice their displeasure.

If developed, the work force housing units would go on one or both of two undeveloped plots of land owned by the district. One, known as the Hidden Valley site, is in Santa Barbara, at the end of Palermo Drive. The other, known as the Tatum property, is in the Goleta Valley, between San Marcos High School and El Camino Elementary.

Christina Aguirre-Kolb, 27, one of two psychologists at Santa Barbara High School, lives with her mother and stepfather in the home in which she was raised. "I really appreciate how the district is looking for housing for my co-workers and people like myself," she said after finding out about proposed affordable housing units for teachers.
Christina Aguirre-Kolb, 27, one of two psychologists at Santa Barbara High School, lives with her mother and stepfather in the home in which she was raised.

Both groups, from the neighborhoods near each vacant plot, say they support affordable housing for teachers. But they oppose any plan to “upzone” — that is, allow for more dwellings or units than is currently zoned — on district-owned vacant land.

The neighbors also believe that UniDev, the company hired by the district to do the ongoing feasibility study, has a conflict of interest. East Coast-based UniDev is a work force housing developer, and would likely develop the project if it’s deemed feasible.

“I’m all for teachers — how could you be against teachers?” said Maeda Palius, president of the Hidden Valley Residents Association. “I don’t fault the school district for trying to find a way. But to shove twice the density down a small neighborhood’s throat is ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, district and UniDev officials are puzzled by the teachers’ apparent indifference.

“I have to say, it surprised me a bit,” said Pat Saley, a land-use consultant who is working for the district on the project. “If I were a teacher, I think I would have weighed in.”

UniDev Vice President Suzanne Parmet said she believes the teachers want the project, pointing to a survey teachers took last year in which 95 percent said they would stay on the South Coast indefinitely if their cost-of-living problems were eased.

Still, she said, “I think it’s unfortunate they haven’t come out to the meetings to let the public know how they feel.”

Some of the possible deals teachers and staff members could get on a home are outlined in the draft feasibility study completed by UniDev. In addition to the detached home for $490,000, options include a $200,000 one-bedroom flat or a $350,000 two-bedroom townhouse.

The catch, however, is that they’d have to sell the home shortly after retirement at a below-market price, and share some of the profit with the school district.

The report also lays out the estimated profit for the public school district. For instance, if the district put 98 units on the Hidden Valley site — which is twice the number for which it is zoned — the schools would bring in roughly $13 million over 35 years. That’s an average of about $370,000 annually, for a school system with a budget of about $100 million.

Meanwhile, it appears that younger teachers are becoming more numerous. The public school system hired 77 teachers this fall, up from 57 two years ago. The K-12 system currently employs about 800 full-time teachers.

Teachers and staff members interviewed by the News-Press for this story seemed to appreciate the proposal, but were only vaguely aware of it.

Twenty-seven-year-old Christina Aguirre-Kolb, one of two psychologists at Santa Barbara High, lives with her mother and stepfather in the home in which she was raised.

“I really appreciate how the district is looking for housing for my co-workers and people like myself,” she said. “It is really hard to make ends meet.”

Miss Lane, whose family is here largely because her grandfather had the foresight to snatch up four houses long ago, said she would consider purchasing one of the work force housing units.

But “it depends on how many loopholes come with it,” she added.

One teacher who left the district this summer because of the high cost of living said he wished someone had told him about the proposal.

“I think it is a great idea,” said Steve Ryan, a former science teacher at Santa Barbara High School who now teaches at Pioneer Valley High in Santa Maria.

When living in Santa Barbara, Mr. Ryan, 41, rented a two-bedroom apartment with his wife and toddler for $1,625 a month. Now he pays $1,300 for a three-bedroom house with a garage and a yard in Santa Maria.

He said he has no regrets.

“To see the face of my daughter while playing in the sprinkler in the backyard — that wrapped up the deal right there,” he said. “I really feel we’re in the next chapter of our lives.”