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Oakland strike highlights housing struggles for teachers

Cris Bautista teaches high school in Oakland, California, but to afford to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, he commutes an hour or more to an apartment he shares with another teacher and works weekends at a coffee shop.

The English and history teacher is among the Oakland educators who went on strike for a week, winning an 11 percent pay raise with the argument that their salaries were not nearly keeping up with the soaring cost of living in a region flush with technology industry money. As evidence, they point to the district's above-average turnover rate.

Their predicament has been so illustrative of a national inequity problem in America's wealthiest communities that the tentative contract — which also comes with a one-time 3 percent bonus — is a triumph that stands out among the dozen major teacher strike movements that have swept the country in the past year.

"The contract will help ensure more teachers stay in Oakland and that more come to teach in our classrooms and support our students," said Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell in a statement.

Educators' struggles to afford housing have also been at the heart of union strife in other high-priced cities from Seattle to Los Angeles, part of a wave of teacher activism that has swept the country since a statewide teachers' walkout last spring in West Virginia.

It's an issue that school districts, community groups and others have been working to address in affluent areas to help retain teachers, and to make it easier for them to live in and stay involved with the communities they serve.

In California, where the affordability crisis is especially acute, school districts from Santa Clara in Silicon Valley to Los Angeles have created affordable housing programs to serve their staffs. The Los Angeles Unified School District started offering apartments on or near its school campuses in 2015, but affordable housing income guidelines have limited the number of teachers living in the units, which are leased instead to lower-paid support staff like bus drivers and teacher assistants.

In January, the Los Angeles teachers union won a 6 percent pay raise after a six-day strike. A business group called Landed launched in 2015 to offer down payment assistance to teachers and has contributed to the home purchases of nearly 200 educators in California, Washington state and Colorado, according to founder Alex Lofton, who said the startup was inspired by a Stanford University program to help its staff. Landed takes a cut of either the profit or loss when the home is resold. The real estate program began with seed money from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's philanthropy to help teachers and it hopes to eventually broaden to other "essential" community professionals like firefighters and nurses.

The Oakland Education Association and its 3,000 teachers walked out on February 21 to demand increases in what they say are some of the lowest salaries for public school teachers in the Bay Area. Salaries for Oakland teachers start at $46,500 a year and the average salary is $63,000, according to the union. In neighboring Berkeley, a starting teacher makes $51,000 a year and the average salary is $75,000, the union said.

Bautista said if he could afford to live in Oakland, he would offer more after-school tutoring to his students. But he can only afford to live an hour away in Fremont, where he pays $1,300 for his share of an apartment. By comparison, Oakland's median rental housing price is $3,380 for a two-bedroom home, according to Zillow.

"I would like for my career to be in Oakland," said Bautista, who said he left a position in a wealthier school district that paid him $10,000 more, in order to work with Oakland's diverse, underserved student population. "At the same time, money is a concern."

The teachers say the income gap is forcing many of them to leave the district or profession entirely. Desiree Carver-Thomas, an expert on teacher turnover at the Learning Policy Institute in Palo Alto, said about 20 percent of educators leave the district annually, but some schools, particularly in poorer east and west Oakland see up to 30 percent of their teachers disappearing. Ismael Armendariz, first vice president of the Oakland teachers union, said it's the worst at West Oakland Middle School, which over a three-year period retained only 9 percent of its teachers.

"That's a problem because that kind of instability has an effect on student achievement," Carver-Thomas said. An Oakland school district spokesman said it recently began exploring the possibility of facilitating more affordable housing in the city.

"It's very much in our mind because we know how expensive it is to live here," spokesman John Sasaki said. But Oakland teacher Grace Bigler says the concept of "teacher housing" or assistance programs are insulting to the profession and don't address the inequity issue at the root of the problem.

"Teacher housing is kind of Band-Aid on a deep wound," Bigler said. In some areas, solving the issue of affordable housing for teacher has been a decades-long effort. Eagle County Schools, which serves the ritzy ski-town areas around Vail, Colorado, has for the past twenty years sought a developer to build on district-owned property because it struggles with teacher recruitment and turnover, which hovers around 12 percent. But that on-going proposal has been hampered by dueling interests: making a profit alongside affordable housing for teachers.

"It's a real crisis for everyone in our community to have this situation," said Dan Dougherty, a district spokesman. The school system has recently turned to the Habitat for Humanity nonprofit to create below-market price homes for teachers who must help build it. The district also offers eight temporary housing units to get new teachers into the district.

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