Publication: The Chronicle
Author: Judy Richter
Date: October 11, 2011

Brandon Smith loves walking to work in just 10 minutes. Smith, a professor of English as a second language at College of San Mateo, also loves paying just $1,000 a month for his nearly new, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with office and garage. He and other teachers from CSM, Skyline College and Cañada College live at College Vista, a 44-unit apartment complex on a former parking lot at CSM. The San Mateo County Community College District built it to attract and retain faculty members faced with some of the most daunting housing costs in the nation.

cv02District trustees started looking into a project in 2002 because the district had a hard time recruiting at all levels. Prospective faculty and staff from out of the area would take one look at housing costs and run the other way. Or if they did accept a job, they didn’t stay long, costing the district both time and money. The faculty turnover rate was 10 to 11 percent a year, said Barbara Christensen, director of community and government relations and the project’s manager.

In 2006, San Mateo, San Francisco and Marin counties were the nation’s least affordable counties, “based on the hourly wage required to rent a two-bedroom apartment,” the nonprofit Sustainable San Mateo County said in its April 2007 annual report. Also in 2006, the group said, a household in the county needed an annual income of $118,159 to buy a median-priced condo for $550,000. The income needed to buy a median-priced single-family house for $869,000 was $186,691. (The median is the midpoint.) However, median household income in the county was $91,200, the group said. In the community college district, salaries for full-time faculty members start at $54,265 and go up to $65,351, according to its Web site. The district couldn’t afford to increase salaries, so it began offering low-cost second mortgages of up to $75,000 to help teachers buy homes.

Nevertheless, the loans often are insufficient because many teachers, especially younger ones carrying a heavy load of student debt, can’t save the 3 percent down payment required by the loan program. Charging below-market rents for the College Vista apartments is a way to overcome that obstacle. Monthly rents start at $840 for a one-bedroom, one-bath unit and go up to $1,420 for a three-bedroom, two-bath unit. By comparison, average rents for such units in the Bay Area ranged from $1,372 to $2,078 in the third quarter of this year, according to RealFacts, a rental information service in Novato. College Vista rents are determined by the amount needed to pay off the construction debt, provide routine maintenance and operations, and build up a capital reserve fund for major repairs. The district doesn’t pay property tax because it owns the tax-exempt land, Christensen said. Development costs totaled $9.3 million, none of it from taxpayers, she said. The costs were financed with low-interest, tax-exempt certificates of participation, which are sold to investors and repaid with rental income. Despite the low rents, “this is a first-class, market-rate product,” Christensen said.

Smith’s second-floor apartment is typical. All amenities in the CSM professor’s home are standard: hardwood flooring in the entryway, carpeting in the living areas, all kitchen appliances, granite counters, balcony and a laundry room with washer and dryer. Both the living/dining area and the bedroom have scenic views of a canyon, hills and the bay. Other amenities include mirrored wardrobe doors in the bedroom, a linen closet, all window coverings and 9-foot ceilings. “I love the 9-foot ceilings” and the feeling of privacy, Smith said. Because of energy-efficient construction, paying only about $28 a month for electricity, including heat, is nice, too. Smith, like most other tenants, has a one-car garage. A few have carports. He had lived in a San Carlos apartment with lower rent, “but I have a much nicer unit now,” he said. Besides his short walk to work, Smith relishes the chance to spend more time with students rather than commuting. He estimates he saves about 100 miles of driving a week. A survey of College Vista tenants showed that 59 percent walked to work, Christensen said. Working adults in the 44 apartments reduced driving by 152,000 miles a year, saving them time and money and reducing air pollution. Living close to his office allows Smith to work there on weekends if necessary, and “it makes me more willing to teach night classes,” he said. He also attends college performances and sporting events – most of them free – and runs on the school track. College Vista “is a tremendous benefit for keeping qualified instructors,” he said, noting that some of his colleagues have moved to less attractive but cheaper areas.

Between College Vista’s two Craftsman-style buildings is a clubhouse with a deck. Residents can rent it for parties or dinners. It’s also available for district and faculty meetings. First priority in qualifying for College Vista goes to permanent faculty and staff in the district, followed by part-time faculty. Next on the list are faculty and staff in the San Mateo Union High School District and then faculty and staff in the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District. All of the apartments are rented to college district people, and 92 more are on the waiting list. Tenants may stay up to five years, presumably enough time to save for a house, Christensen said.

Another satisfied College Vista resident is Kevin Corsiglia, women’s soccer coach and an associate professor of physical education at Skyline College in San Bruno. He and his wife, Stacy, moved into their two-bedroom, two-bath apartment when their building opened in January 2006. Since then they have had a daughter, Alexa, who is a year old. Alexa is one of six babies born to residents since College Vista opened, Christensen said. Stacy Corsiglia teaches in the Woodside Elementary School District, so their apartment is about halfway between their jobs. They were renting a duplex in Millbrae for about $600 a month more than the $1,100 they’re paying now. The low rent at College Vista enabled Stacy Corsiglia to take a year off when Alexa was born and to teach part time now, saving on child care. “It was a great opportunity for us,” Kevin Corsiglia said by phone, adding that they want to save money for a house and “wait out the housing market.” They started house-hunting a few months ago, and they plan to take advantage of the district’s low-cost second mortgage when they find the right house. Corsiglia grew up in the Bay Area, so the high cost of housing was no secret to him, but “it’s a big shock” for people from out of the area, he said.

College Vista has proved so successful that the district plans to build a 60-unit complex on an underused parking lot at Cañada College in Redwood City. This project, yet to be named, is being reviewed by city officials. College Vista is the first such project undertaken by a community college district in the state and the second by any California educational agency. The Santa Clara Unified School District opened the first project, Casa del Maestro, at a former middle school site in April 2002. Its 40 apartments range from one bedroom and one bathroom to two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

CasaDelMaestro_3Rents are $800 to $1,200. “That’s about half of what going rents are around here,” said Roger Barnes, district business administrator and the project’s manager. Teacher pay in the district starts at $37,519 and goes up to $52,566, according to the district’s Web site. Development costs totaled $6 million, financed with certificates of participation. The design “evokes the Victorian-era buildings of the Presidio, sited on a central green that leads to a well-appointed clubhouse,” says the Web site for Thompson/Dorman Partners, the Mill Valley firm that developed both Casa del Maestro and College Vista. Like College Vista, the apartments include garages, all appliances, in-unit laundry areas, decks and window coverings. Unlike College Vista, which gets cooler summer breezes, they have central air conditioning. Casa del Maestro is available to certificated teachers who have taught in the district for less than three years and whose combined household income doesn’t exceed $140,000, Barnes said. The waiting list has 32 names.”The goal is to retain teachers,” he said, noting that about two years ago he conducted a survey showing only a 7 percent attrition rate among teachers who lived there. Among other teachers hired at the same time, the attrition rate was 70 percent.

Casa del Maestro is serving the district’s “needs in being able to recruit and retain teachers,” Barnes said. Like the San Mateo County college district, Santa Clara is planning to build another apartment complex for its teachers. It’s projected to open in March 2009 with 30 units. Designed by KTGY Group of Irvine (Orange County), College Vista and Casa del Maestro won prestigious Gold Nugget awards from the Pacific Coast Builders Conference.

Thompson/Dorfman Partners, the development firm, has recently proposed a four-unit project for the Mill Valley School District. The firm owns a 7,200-square-foot site on East Blithedale Avenue “that we’re donating to the district,” said co-owner Bruce Thompson. Located on a parking lot near downtown, the project would have parking for tenants and the public on the first level with the apartments upstairs. The company would get a tax write-off for the donation, said Thompson, whose children attend Mill Valley schools. “As a developer, I think this is a great way to give something back,” he said, adding that his firm has developed about 10,000 market-rate rental and for-sale units in the Bay Area. Like most other districts, Mill Valley foresees a wave of retirements as teachers in the Baby Boom generation leave their classrooms, so the low-cost apartments would help in recruiting. Thompson/Dorfman has talked with other Bay Area school districts that are interested in similar projects. It has formed a nonprofit entity, Education Housing Partners LLC, with a goal of developing one such project a year.

The Bay Area and California are not alone in their quest to help teachers with housing. The New York City Teachers’ Retirement System is investing $28 million in a 234-unit apartment project for teachers and administrators in public, private, parochial and charter schools in the city, the Associated Press reported. Rents will range from $806 for a studio to $1,412 for a three-bedroom apartment. Back in San Mateo, soccer coach Corsiglia said he has friends in the private sector who envy him and his family. “The (college) district is doing something really progressive and intelligent” for its teachers, he said.