It’s been talked about in San Francisco for so long, teacher housing seemed like a myth. Or maybe just a bad joke.
But credit Mayor Ed Lee with deciding this week that he’s had enough of the working group that doesn’t seem to do any actual work and has made no progress toward building homes for teachers.
In consultation with Olson Lee, his director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing, Ed Lee has picked a site for teacher housing: the Francis Scott Key Annex at 1360 43rd Ave. in the Outer Sunset. He said he will commit $44 million in city money to build 130 to 150 rental units of teacher housing and will seek a developer as soon as possible.
The news came after this column featured the story of Etoria Cheeks, a math teacher at a San Francisco public high school who is homeless. After being evicted from a Daly City home in foreclosure in December, she slept in hostels and a homeless shelter before a retired teacher agreed to let her sleep in her guest room as she searches for permanent accommodations.
“I am disturbed as anyone to have a teacher who’s homeless,” the mayor said. “There is a level of frustration I have with the current conversation of the (teacher housing) working group. We have an immediate problem right now.”
You know that when the deliberative, longtime bureaucrat who sits in Room 200 of City Hall is the fast-acting visionary on a project, the progress has been insanely slow.
Teacher housing has been under discussion in San Francisco for nearly 20 years, but has never come close to reality. It’s way past time for the talk to end, especially as the booming real estate market means housing is far out of reach for teachers.
As The Chronicle revealed last year, the San Francisco Unified School District’s average teacher pay ranked No. 528 out of 821 school districts in the state, placing it alongside school districts in Dixon, Susanville (Lassen County) and Chowchilla (Madera County) — despite the city’s housing being by far the most expensive in the state.
Teachers in San Francisco are renting other people’s dining rooms, driving for Uber after long days in the classroom, renting in-law units without kitchens, commuting for several hours a day from the far reaches of the East Bay or simply quitting. Or, like Cheeks, sleeping in a homeless shelter. If this is the way we treat some of our most essential professionals, San Francisco should be ashamed.
Lee’s new commitment could begin to address this problem. He acknowledged that it will need the buy-in of the school district and an affirmative vote from the Board of Education to move forward. The Board of Supervisors does not need to approve the expenditure because the money will come from the Housing Trust Fund, which is used for a variety of projects.
The working group, composed of officials from the school district, teachers union and mayor’s office, has been stuck philosophizing about how units will be doled out, but Lee wants to start the building process while those discussions continue. Questions about how teachers will qualify for a unit and what happens if they resign or retire are still being ironed out.
“The mayor said, ‘Get it done! Get it done!’” Olson Lee said. “With affordable housing, it’s always, ‘Olson, what have you built for me today?’”
School board member Matt Haney, who will have a vote on the idea, called the decision “long overdue.”
“We also feel the urgency,” Haney said. “We all agree that this process is moving too slowly and we have wanted to see bold action from the city in addressing this crisis. If this is a sign that they are stepping up and putting their resources and focus behind it, I think that’s much-welcomed news.”
Owned by the school district, the Francis Scott Key Annex consists of a ramshackle, century-old building used for administrative purposes, including the storage of special-education records. A sign stating that there are no public restrooms hangs on the front door. Inside is a long hallway filled with cardboard boxes. Outside the building sits a lot of litter — including, on a recent day, an office chair and half a surfboard.
The site also features an L-shaped patch of pavement that measures about an acre and is filled with potted plants and playground equipment as a makeshift park for the neighborhood.
Why this site out of the several underutilized parcels the school district owns? Simple.
“It’s flat,” Olson Lee said.
He said the building would have to be demolished for the project to proceed. The idea is that the school district would continue to own the land, and the developer would own the building and lease the land from the district. The city’s $44 million would help cover pre-development and construction costs.
Olson Lee said the earliest that teachers could move in would be 2022 because of the slow process of completing projects in this city. Both of the Lees and Haney said they’re hopeful that more teacher housing will follow.
That, of course, will be far too late for Cheeks, who has tendered her resignation to the school district. Despite having a master’s degree and a teaching credential and making about $65,000 a year, she has struggled to find housing in San Francisco she can afford. She is looking for jobs around the Bay Area in school districts that pay better and where housing is cheaper.
She said she nearly had a panic attack when she saw her story on the front page of The Chronicle, but finally opened up to her algebra and statistics students at the Academy-San Francisco at McAteer about her miserable past few months.
“I told the story and was as transparent as I could be, and they were very, very supportive,” she said. “My story is what a lot of people are going through. A lot of my students have had to relocate in the middle of the school year because of the same issues. I was a voice for that, and in a way I spoke for them.”
The school district and city may be slow, but numerous Chronicle readers responded swiftly with offers of money and rooms for rent. Cheeks is looking at all her options.
“One student said I can stay with him if I give him extra credit,” she said with a laugh.
Told that her story helped spur an announcement on where to build teacher housing and a $44 million commitment in city funds, Cheeks gasped. “Oh, that’s amazing!” she said. “I think I’m going to cry.”
She had me on speakerphone as we talked shortly after school wrapped up for the day. In the background, a 15-year-old boy told her, “I told you. You did something good.”