Of the staff working at M-A, only about 40% live within about a 15 minute drive from the school; their houses are most likely located in Menlo Park, Redwood City, Palo Alto, or East Palo Alto. Although a greater overall number of teachers live closer to the school than they did 15 to 25 years ago, the percentage of staff living within a reasonable distance of the school has not increased. This fact is important because it reveals how as housing prices rise in the Silicon Valley, affordable housing becomes harder and harder to find for teachers, forcing them to relocate to other neighborhoods and make long commutes to school every day.
In an ideal situation, affordable local housing would be available for all school staff, to allow teachers, administrators, and campus aides to focus on the students instead of on long commutes. Unfortunately, such is not the case, and they are often forced to find housing all throughout the Bay Area.
Ron Weiss, statistics teacher, makes an hour long commute each morning from Half Moon Bay. Besides the lengthy drive to M-A, the “commute on HWY 92 can sometimes be a treacherous road. There tends to be a lot of traffic hazards and accidents.” Weiss said, “Timing my morning and afternoon commute just right is essential.” The distance from Weiss’s home to the school allows little leeway for sleeping in or staying after school.
Weiss explained, “If I don’t leave M-A by four, it could be a long ride home (75 to 90 minutes). This means staying after school to watch students play sports or participate in extracurricular activities is a rare thing for me. There is no doubt that if I lived locally in Menlo Park I would be much more involved in M-A sports and other extracurricular activities.”
The inability for teachers to find affordable local housing not only forces them to limit their hours on campus but also prevents them from being very involved in the lives of their students. The harmful effects of rising housing costs extend to the whole school community, because teachers often cannot connect with their students by attending sports events or other events outside of school.
Weiss confirmed that being far away from M-A makes it “very difficult for a teacher to feel like part of the community when you don’t live locally.” He also explained how teaching in Half Moon Bay differed from M-A: “While teaching in Half Moon Bay, I coached basketball, attended school concerts and plays, and interacted with students and parents on the weekends. It was like a different job.”
Weiss’s perspective is valuable in understanding the struggle for new teachers to find local housing because he has had experience teaching both locally and away from home. Drama instructor Allison Sundstrom agreed with Weiss’s evaluation of the advantages teachers have when living close to school.
Sundstrom lives very close to the M-A campus and spoke about how her living situation is beneficial to her work life: “During the process of the fall show and the spring musical I am here usually at least twelve hours a day. So if I had to commute half an hour to an hour each way, I don’t think I would want to teach drama any more.” For Sundstrom, local housing is not only a preference, but almost a necessity during the preparation of M-A’s drama productions.
Because of her particular situation, Sundstrom acknowledged, “[A long commute] is a huge problem, especially for young teachers… for teachers who have been here longer and are higher on the salary schedule, it’s still difficult but it’s not as difficult. But for a single, young teacher, who is not very high on the salary schedule, it’s very hard to be able to afford to live here. And if that happens [higher housing prices], I don’t know what I’d do.”
As far as addressing the issue of rising house prices, Sundstrom said, “I think it’s probably something that would have to fall on the district and maybe even broader than the district, maybe the county district of education, because it’s not just a problem at M-A. It’s a problem for our district; it’s a problem for the greater Bay Area as a whole. Rent and home prices are so high. I don’t really know what the solution is, because obviously the district can’t afford to buy our houses. There’s going to have to be a solution really soon, otherwise teachers are going to start leaving, and teachers already are leaving because of the cost of living.”
Weiss agreed with Sundstrom about the school district’s responsibility to help teachers find affordable housing: “I believe it is ultimately up to the school district to provide solutions to the problem of affordable housing for teachers. For example, the school district could purchase local apartments and subsidize rents for new teachers for the first five years. During this time, perhaps they could offer a matching fund to help teachers save towards a down payment for the purchase of a first home in the local area.”
Among two teachers with very different living conditions, there is a consensus that something needs to be done about local housing prices. This conflict is pressing because it affects the well being of everyone at M-A, from the teachers and other staff members, to students and parents.