Making it Happen: Policy Recommendations for Incentivizing Affordable Education Workforce Housing in California  

Posted on by Jeff Vincent, Center for Cities + Schools, UC Berkeley

In our new report, ‘Education Workforce Housing in California: Developing the 21st Century Campus,’ we assess the possibility and opportunity for school districts to build affordable housing on properties they already own and make it available for their employees.

Many California LEAs struggle to attract and retain teachers (in some cases, other staff as well), as housing costs continue to rise across the state. Too often, beginning teacher salaries are not competitive in local housing markets, as we discussed in a previous blog post.

Our analysis of school district-owned properties finds significant development potential across California that should be explored. California’s school districts own nearly 11,000 properties totalling more than 150,000 acres of land. Our analysis, summarized in another blog post, identifies 7,068 properties with potentially developable land of one acre or more, totaling 75,000 acres statewide. This is about the size of five Manhattans. More than half (61%) of these properties are located where beginning teachers face strong housing affordability challenges. More than 40% of these properties are located in areas that are likely to be competitive for key affordable housing financing tools.

Luckily, there is a growing interest across the state to develop education workforce housing.  Four housing developments are up and running and between June 2018 and November 2020, eight school districts put propositions or measures before local voters to fund education workforce housing development - six of these measures passed. In our statewide scan, we found another 46 school districts actively pursuing education workforce housing. 

As we write this blog, Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City is a couple weeks away from opening its new units to its teachers and other staff.

While there clearly is an uptick in interest among local district leaders across the state, developing housing - especially affordable housing - is no easy task. School districts must navigate new waters on community engagement, financing, design, and operations planning. Our research findings outline a roadmap for local districts to take in exploring workforce housing potential, we also find that there are important roles for state policy and incentives that would set school districts up for success. This blog post dives into what LEAs and state agencies can do to create an environment suitable to education workforce housing development.

 

What Can LEAs Do to Effectively Pursue Education Workforce Housing Development?

Develop Partnerships with Community Before and Throughout the Process. Early, continuous, and long-term engagement with community groups, parent groups, and neighbors is necessary for education workforce housing to succeed. Because the public school— its campus and its teachers—holds a special status in many communities, transforming the land to a different use must be discussed and negotiated. 

Prepare for a Lengthy Process: Due Diligence and Project Champions are Key. Education workforce housing will require years of planning, development, and construction before the first resident moves in. Over the life of the project, there will be changes in community issues, school board membership, housing and construction costs, and other relevant concerns. The most important stabilizing factor will be thoughtful due diligence that gives confidence to the stakeholders, which will serve as the foundation when necessary adaptations arise.

Design Solutions Must Be Specific to the School, the Site, and the Neighborhood. The standard solutions for housing development will not necessarily apply to education workforce housing. The education-based tenants, the public school campus, and the community’s vested interests will uniquely frame any development. Any education workforce housing development will need to flexibly negotiate specific conditions to accomodate a community’s unique circumstances and challenges.

Keep the Process of Site Evaluation and Selection Transparent. Some LEAs, knowing that there will be community pushback, might begin their consideration of sites “behind the scenes” with closed, internal conversations that try to head off public discussion, but this starts the process on the wrong foot. Building trust means being transparent and listening to community stakeholders who may have concerns. Bringing examples and using models, such as the precedents and site types shared in our report, can build a shared understanding of the possibilities, constraints, choices, and tradeoffs required of such developments. Defining project goals along with the surrounding community sets up the process for the successful construction of affordable workforce housing while also ensuring the development meets other community goals as well. These shared, desired outcomes bolster support in the community and can help support LEAs through the life of a project. 

 

What State Agencies and Other Partners Can Do To Help LEAs Pursue Education Workforce Housing Development?

Increase Land Use Flexibility and Streamline Approvals Process. When education workforce housing takes an average of 7 years to develop, something needs to change. If we want schools to be able to build housing, we need to make it easier, faster, and increase the certainty of successful completion. State or local policy action can ease regulatory constraints and reduce other barriers to developing education workforce housing on LEA-owned property. For example, a locality may impose minimum parking requirements that increase costs and use up available land, or it may place limits on density (building height, massing, etc.) that reduce the number of housing units that may be built and thereby make some developments financially infeasible. Jurisdictions should also look at their fees/exactions and approvals processes - can these be reduced/streamlined for school districts building workforce housing?

Such steps could also assist cities across California as they look to meet ambitious new Regional Housing Needs Analysis (RHNA) targets, if developable school land could be counted. Similarly, important state policy changes can make housing on school land easier, faster, and ensure success. A bill before the state legislature (AB 2295, Bloom) based on our research would do just that. If AB 2295 passes, LEA-owned land would not need to be rezoned for housing, would be reviewed at local building agencies rather than the state (together these could shave years off the process), would guarantee that three-stories of housing could be developed (adding certainty to the process), prioritizes teachers and school employees, and guarantees that at least half of the housing built will be affordable. These provisions stem directly from our research, and would go a long way toward enabling more of the housing our educators and by implication, California’s school children, need.

Just last month, state leaders took another step forward in promoting education workforce housing. Assembly Bill 2295 was introduced by Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), which would make it easier for school districts to build housing on land they already own by removing some of the administrative barriers that have delayed housing production. The measure also establishes minimum affordability levels for developments.

Expand Financing Tools Available. Financing affordable housing is complex and costs are riddled with uncertainty. To help catalyze developments, LEAs need access to funding for both the “soft costs” of predevelopment (e.g., soils testing, architectural plans, community engagement) as well as the “hard costs” of actual construction. To make projects feasible, LEAs need access to both capital as well as cost containment options. State policymakers could support these efforts by establishing a revolving fund for predevelopment activities that provides grants to qualifying LEAs to support project start-up costs, staffing, management, and other feasibility/predevelopment analysis. The state could also establish a grant and/or loan program for capital costs associated with education workforce housing development. To set up these grant programs, the state could look for partnerships with philanthropy and/or the private sector.

Build the Capacity of LEAs. Relaxing regulatory constraints and providing funding will go a long way to catalyzing education workforce development, but LEAs need to build the knowledge capacity to leverage opportunities. Of utmost importance is that training and technical assistance be made available to LEA leaders on how to effectively plan, finance, and develop education workforce housing. The state (e.g., HCD and the Department of Education) should form strategic partnerships with professional associations (such as the California School Boards Association (CSBA), California Association of School Business Officials (CASBO), California’s Coalition of Adequate School Housing (CASH)) and philanthropic organizations to build the knowledge capacity of LEA leaders across the state. Most fundamentally, these entities should establish a clearinghouse of guidance and best practices for local school districts.

To help move local capacity forward, our team is working with CSBA, cityLAB at UCLA, and Terner Center for Housing Innovation on an “academy” for local district leaders to learn from best practice and investigate whether workforce housing could make sense in their district. As part of this, we’re putting together a resource library, which will aid districts statewide.

 

By activating potentially developable land owned by school districts across the state, California has an opportunity to support education workforce staff through longstanding careers, which is a key ingredient to improving school quality for all students as well as promoting a more equitable education system.

The goal is to help teachers and other school staff live in the communities where they work: a win for educators, a win for students, and a win for communities.

 

About this research

This is the third in a series of blogs lifting up key findings, resources, and recommendations from our new research report, ‘Education Workforce Housing in California: Developing the 21st Century Campus’. Developed in collaboration with the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, cityLab UCLA, and the California School Board Association, this research assesses the need and potential for public education workforce housing strategies in California, utilizing a unique statewide spatial inventory of district-owned properties, employee salary and staffing data, and local housing conditions. This research highlights lessons learned from districts that have built or are pursuing workforce housing, and shows a range of housing design strategies. The report is also accompanied by an illustrated Handbook that provides a how-to guide for school boards, administrators, and community members to advance this strategy in communities across California.