Teacher housing project gets huge support in Palo Alto | News

As construction began on Palo Alto’s first teacher housing project, city officials sent a strong signal Monday that they are ready to welcome a second project.

On Sept. 11, the City Council got its first look at a 44-apartment project that developer Half Dome Capitals hopes to build on a vacant lot next to a Travelodge hotel. Although the board did not get a vote, members indicated they liked what they saw and strongly encouraged the developer to move forward with the plan despite some concerns about whether most teachers would actually be able to afford to live there.

Created in partnership with Palo Alto’s teachers unions, the development at 3265 El Camino Real will offer 20 studio and 24 one-bedroom apartments aimed at members of the Palo Alto Unified School District’s teachers unions, the Palo Alto Teachers Association, which represents teachers, and the California Teachers Association. School Employees Association, which represents librarians, teaching assistants, bus drivers and other school district employees other than certified teachers.

Nearly two dozen teachers spoke in favor of the project, which they said would help local teachers and the district with recruitment and retention efforts.

Hunter Reardon, an English teacher at Palo Alto High School since 2016, remembers the difficulty he had in the first half of his career finding a place to live anywhere near the school. He said that he moved four times between three different cities during the past seven years. Having a studio anywhere near Palo Alto High School would be considered a “miracle,” he said.

“I know I’m not the only teacher in this community who at the age of 23 has had to somehow account for their first year of teaching while also enduring extra hours of commuting every which way, and seeing most of their first year’s paycheck go toward rent,” Reardon said. “They experience a net decline in living conditions after moving out of their college dorms and starting their careers.”

Margarita Mendez, a Spanish teacher at Fletcher Middle School, said she routinely rides an e-bike to school, a luxury many of her colleagues don’t have because they live far from Palo Alto.

“I can do this because I live 10 miles from Fletcher, unlike our school librarian who commutes from Walnut Creek every day for two hours if there is no traffic.”

Jason Matloff, managing director at Half Dome, said he was inspired to develop a project for local teachers after raising three children in Palo Alto and seeing how many teachers had to commute from far away. He pointed out that 87% of the city’s teachers live outside the city.

“Providing affordable housing for teachers not only enhances the district’s ability to recruit and retain, it also allows teachers to stay after school to attend more shopping events, club activities and other events that they are not currently able to do because many of them commute far away,” he said. Matloff to the council.

The proposed development is more modest in scale than the landmark-focused project now under construction at 231 Grant Ave., near the county courthouse. This project includes 110 apartments and is intended to serve the various school districts in Santa Clara County. But unlike the Grant Avenue project, Half Dome’s project is of great local importance and does not depend on public funds. The Grant Avenue project, which is being developed by Mercy Housing and Abode Communities, requires an infusion of county and city funds.

The privately funded nature of the project is one of the many reasons the project has endeared itself to the council. Councilman Pat Burt called it an “exciting proposal,” while Councilman Ed Lounge said “it’s exactly what we’re looking for, if not more, for a PHZ (Planned Residential Zoning),” referring to the area change he aims to achieve. Half Dome. Request for approval.

The council’s biggest concerns relate to parking and affordability of the units. While all 44 apartments will be offered at below market rates, rents will vary widely, with 20% of the apartments set aside for workers who make up 80% of the area’s median income, and the remaining 80% designated as “affordable teachers.” .

Matloff estimated that rents for those in the low-income category would be about $2,200 for studios and $2,500 for one-bedroom apartments. For those in the middle-income bracket, which are households making 81% to 120% of the area median income, rents will be $3,600 and $4,100 for studios and one-bedroom apartments, respectively.

Given the discrepancy, some council members and residents questioned whether these units would truly be affordable for Palo Alto teachers, whose 2023 salaries range from $76,488 to $154,336, according to city staff. Deputy Mayor Greer Stone, a teacher who previously worked in the Palo Alto Unified School District, said there is a desperate need for teacher housing, but noted that most of the units will not be affordable for teachers in the early stages of their careers and will largely go toward their housing. More permanent colleagues.

“My concern is that teachers who are deep into their careers are probably already settled in a home, have families, and are not well-suited to a studio and a one-bedroom apartment,” Stone said.

Councilor Julie Lythcott-Haims agreed and suggested the city had not yet reached “the scale that will attract and retain the people we want to attract.”

“If we want to attract and retain teachers in this city, we have to make it possible for them to live here when they start their careers,” Lythcott-Haims said.

Terry Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Teachers Association, had no such concerns. The rents proposed by the Half Dome project are still well below the average rent in Palo Alto, she said.

“With 44 units we’re not going to be able to help every teacher out there. We have over 800 teachers,” Baldwin said. “It’s really about trying to help the people we can help now, and hopefully more projects will come forward.”

The “planned home zoning” process Half Dome is working on allows residential developers to negotiate zoning exceptions with the City Council. In this case, the developer is seeking a height exemption that would allow the building to be 58 feet tall, while increasing density and reducing parking requirements. The building will have 22 parking spaces in the underground garage, or half a space per unit.

While Matloff said the ratio of parking spaces per apartment is consistent with demand in other multifamily projects in transit-friendly areas, some council members questioned whether the number of parking spaces would be enough. Burt said some of those concerns could be alleviated if the developer offered opportunities for residents to use car-sharing services like Zipcar.

“I really think this is the direction we should be going in as there are more restrictions on parking, not to mention really impressive projects like this, where parking drives up costs,” Burt said.

Councilwoman Vicki Venker, whose parents were teachers, joined her colleagues in encouraging Matloff to advance the project and said the city will need “creativity of this kind to address the housing crisis we face.”

“I really hope it sets the precedent that it sets, to see for-profit builders being able to do affordable housing projects like this,” Venker said.

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