Bolinas School group makes teacher housing a priority

12/27/2018

Nuria Lee emigrated from Spain five years ago. She teaches art at Bolinas School, but last fall she knew her family of four could not take another winter in their 600-square-foot Bolinas home. Despite a mold infestation, the landlord had hiked up the rent by 18 percent. 

“It was becoming clear that we had to leave the district, and I just thought, I have to do something—right now,” she recalled. 

Ms. Lee and another staffer formed a housing committee in the spring to explore the possibility of the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District helping employees access affordable housing. The committee now includes the superintendent, John Carroll, along with two board members, Jennie Pfeifer and Bob Demmerle. 

This month, the committee sent a letter to the district, describing its interest in both acquiring property and appealing to homeowners willing to rent to teachers at below-market rates. So far, the committee has toured around a dozen houses or sites for sale, and although none have panned out, on one occasion a homeowner made a radical decision. 

“We got a call, and this woman who had already decided to sell her home on the mesa said that, after meeting with us and learning that teachers at the school need housing for their families, she had decided to take it off the market and set up a long-term rental,” said Ms. Lee, who moved her family into the house this fall. “I can’t really believe that this has happened—with a two-year agreement at this rental rate, it changes everything.” 

It was a turning point not just for Ms. Lee, but for her collaborator on the committee, Ben Lowrance, who drives the school bus and helps maintain the district’s facilities. Mr. Lowrance and Ms. Lee decided their efforts were best directed toward publicizing their vision to the community. 

“There are the resources out there and the landowners who are willing and interested; it’s about connecting them with the great need of the teachers,” said Mr. Lowrance, a Stinson Beach resident with a baby at home. He, too, was recently slapped with a hefty rent increase.

The committee’s efforts to provide housing for staffers may be aided by legislation passed in California last fall, A.B. 1157, which paves the way for school districts to tackle affordable housing. The law provides a tax exemption for properties that districts rent to employees, and specifies that the costs of constructing, reconstructing or renovating rental housing facilities for district employees are a permissible capital outlay expenditure. 

This means districts can invest surplus property funds into workforce housing; previously, state law required that these funds be used exclusively for capital improvements to existing school facilities.

The bill also authorizes school boards to elect advisory committees to handle the sale, lease or rental of excess property for teacher housing. 

Another state law, passed in 2016, also recognizes the impact of the housing crisis on schools. S.B. 1413 allows school districts that receive local or state funds designated for affordable rental housing to restrict occupancy to teachers and school employees. 

Though local nonprofits such as the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin and the Bolinas Community Land Trust are working to provide more affordable housing throughout coastal Marin, they cannot target teachers specifically, due to fair-housing provisions tied to state and federal funding. Teachers and other school employees have to get in line like everyone else. 

A survey of teachers this summer found that nine out of the 21 teachers who completed it said they were interested in renting or buying in the district but could not afford to do so. 

Mr. Lowrance described how the school cook, who grew up in Bolinas, commutes every day from Occidental, arriving at work at 6 a.m. The principal, Michelle Stephens, started her tenure here this year but still lives in Novato. Though she can’t afford to relocate, she also can’t find a good place to spend the night on the days when she stays late, such as for school board meetings or events. 

“Some employees just need something part-time, or even a good place to park their trailer or van,” Mr. Lowrance said. 

 

The committee can be reached at housing@bolinas-stinson.org or (415) 868.1603. Financial contributions can be made to the Bolinas-Stinson Beach School Foundation over the phone at the same number, or by check mailed to 125 Olema-Bolinas Road, Bolinas, CA, 94924.