San Francisco is the latest city to recognize teachers don’t earn enough to live there

A property manager is required to give tenants a copy of their lease agreement, but the failure to do so in not a reason to withhold rent.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Heidi Avelina Smith has lived in her rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Mission district for 15 years, and she’s been teaching near the community for a decade.

If she moved to the city today, there’s no way she would be able to afford a place. And that’s a problem.

“It’s hard to think about as an educator ... living an hour or two hours away,” said Avelina Smith, a middle school Spanish immersion program teacher and an executive board member on the educators union. “I like going to our sports teams’ games in the community … I like the idea that when I have kids they’re going to be able to come to school with me.”


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Two weeks ago, the city’s mayor released a five-year plan to offer housing assistance to 500 San Francisco Unified teachers by 2020, to try to keep them in the city.

The plan calls for more forgivable housing loans, around $250,000 annually for housing counseling, and new affordable housing for 100 teachers. And on Tuesday, San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure called Proposition A to help fund the plan. Proposition A, which about 73% of voters approved, will allow the city to sell $310 million in bonds to pay for affordable housing.

The city plans to use $50 million alone for maintaining and building affordable housing in the Mission, said Kate Hartley, deputy director for the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

In a city where full-time teachers make a median salary of $66,960 and median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $3,670 a month, many educators are living outside the school district, said Matthew Hardy, spokesman for the district’s teachers union, United Educators of San Francisco.

The lengthened commute is expensive, Hartley said, and can prevent teachers from being as involved in their communities or in after-school activities as they would like.

The expensive housing can also deter teachers from coming to the district altogether, Hardy said. He pointed out that the district, with a total workforce of about 4,400, had 61 open teaching positions and 43 open paraprofessional positions as of Tuesday. Many of the paraprofessional positions are for special education aides. (San Francisco is not alone in its search for teachers — the state is facing a teaching shortage.)

The school district has tried to address the pay gap that keeps teachers from affording San Francisco apartments — last year the educators union negotiated a contract for a 12% raise over three years for teachers. teaching assistants and others.

Smith said if she were forced to move out of the city, she would also leave the district, so that she could be a part of the community in which she teaches.

Smith currently pays $958 in rent, she said, thanks to rent control and a landlord who values her contributions to the community. But she’s constantly afraid of what will happen not only to her, but to her students, if the rent control disappears.

“It’s a very overwhelming sensation of kind of waiting for something to fall apart,” she said.

From Proposition A, $5 million is supposed to be set aside to replenish the Teacher Next Door program, which gives San Francisco Unified teachers $20,000 loans to buy their first home in the city, Hartley said. If the teacher remains in the district for 10 years, the loan is entirely forgiven.

The Teachers Next Door program spent a total of $1 million from 2009 until 2014, when the fund ran out of money, Hartley said. As the economy rebounds and people are starting to look at buying houses again, there’s a higher demand for these grants.

Teachers can pair the $20,000 with the city’s Down Payment Assistance Loan Program, which provides up to $200,000 for low- and middle-income residents, said Jeff Buckley, a senior advisor to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. That program will also be replenished with Prop A funds, he said, and that funding will likely kick in around April.

But even with the city’s help, teachers on a single salary know they’ll be often be outbid for houses in the city, Avelina Smith said. “You go to try to buy a home and somebody who has $500,000 cash-in-hand outbids you.”

San Francisco also wants to follow the examples of districts such as Santa Clara, which lured new teachers with affordable housing built on school grounds. Newark developers are building a Teachers Village for educators downtown. The plan in San Francisco is to build affordable housing for about 100 educators. The bond money is supposed to be used in part for middle-income housing, so it could be used here.

Los Angeles Unified tried to build housing for teachers, but only offers some affordable housing on campus to those school employees who qualify for federal low-income housing standards — developers who build the housing in part used federal tax credits that set those boundaries, said LAUSD chief facilities executive Mark Hovatter. Teachers don’t qualify because they make more than that threshold.

San Francisco’s request for proposals will probably specify the need to accommodate teachers, Buckley said. The local funding allows them to pay for middle income housing, he said, though the city may have to ask the state for a way to ensure that educators will be able to receive priority for housing.

The city and school district are still considering sites for the housing, and don’t have an estimate on the cost or the timeline, Buckley said. It will be at least two years until educators can move in. Probably more.

Avelina Smith just wants to see her students and their families at the laundromat and on the way to school. She wants them to know that in 10 years if they come looking for advice, she’ll be there.

“You can put another teacher in my classroom,” she said. “But they won’t be me.”

Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli or by email at


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