The idea was simple and novel: San Francisco would become the first school district in the nation to offer rent-subsidized housing to keep teachers from fleeing what has become America's most expensive city.
But the idea didn't sit well with residents like Neil Stroth, who learned after the fact that the federally backed housing project would sit in his Sunset District neighborhood. Stroth and his neighbors feared that school officials were pulling a fast one, that the project would be a typical urban public housing complex--with revolving-door tenants and rampant crime.
"We feel like we're being used," Stroth said. "We weren't told anything about this. It's being foisted upon us. The way we figure it, anybody could end up living there, not just teachers."
Citing what it called misinformation in the community, the San Francisco Unified School District last week dropped plans for a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would have guaranteed loans and offered mortgage insurance for their project.
District officials concede that they did a poor job of explaining the plan to residents, but said that they will press on with the project using alternative financing.
They insist that subsidized housing is still the best way to help stem a teacher exodus and help educators--who make an average of $40,000 annually--cope with the city's high cost of living.
"We should have done our homework," said school board member Jill Wynns, who faced 350 angry residents at a recent public meeting. "We never made clear the standard of the housing. Our communication was poor, and we became the victims of rumors and bad publicity."
School officials said they still can afford the project's $15-million price tag because several private banks have offered the same guaranteed loans and low interest rates offered by HUD.
HUD officials said they were surprised by the district's decision to move ahead without their help.
After the June announcement of the district's partnership with HUD, the federal agency heard from three dozen school districts nationwide--including nearby San Jose--and officials said they believe the program still can be a national model for districts in expensive urban areas.
"The San Francisco school district believes it can build the housing and save money for teachers by using a different program," said Larry Bush, a spokesman in the HUD's San Francisco office. "We look forward to learning from them what they have uncovered in new options so we can share that with the many other school districts who have contacted us."
Using better communication with neighbors to allay any fears, Wynns said, the district hopes to use HUD assistance in future subsidized teacher housing at other sites in the city.
The plan to build teacher housing has drawn criticism even among the educators it was designed to help. Many of the district's 4,400 rank-and-file instructors, who are seeking a new contract that includes a 30% raise, said the money should be spent on higher salaries.
Starting pay for San Francisco teachers is $31,000 in a city where the median home price is $470,000 and where one-bedroom apartments rent for $2,000 a month.
The 43-unit complex, slated to open in 2002, would offer apartments with up to three bedrooms for $700 to $1,200 a month.
District officials say they eventually want to build 1,000 units for the city's teachers, some as rentals and others as rent-to-own.
Many residents of the Sunset neighborhood said they fear that the housing would attract low-income residents and raise the crime rate.
"Too many people sadly jumped to the conclusion that 'Oh, this is a HUD project and therefore it's bad,' " Wynns said. "At the public meeting, a retired policeman stood up to say that the city's highest crime areas are always around housing projects like this one. And the hysteria just went from there."
Supervisor Leland Yee, a critic of both the project and HUD's involvement, said school officials learned a lesson about the need to keep the community informed.
"The whole project was developed in isolation, to exclusion of the people who live around there," he said. "The school board didn't feel they needed to consult with people. Now they know."
Neil Stroth said the district should forget the whole idea.
"These people don't even do a good job educating our kids," said Stroth, whose four grown children attended the school where the project is due to be built.
"Why do they think they'd do any better at becoming apartment managers?"