With housing costs rising, a significant increase in the number of homeless students and families in Oakland, and a teacher retention crisis, Oakland Unified School District officials are exploring whether the district’s vacant properties can be turned into affordable and workforce housing for district employees.
More school districts, especially in the Bay Area, have been breaking ground on similar housing projects. The longest-running project is in Santa Clara Unified School District, which opened its Casa Del Maestro apartment complex in 2001, offering teachers deeply discounted housing for up to seven years. More recently, San Francisco, Daly City, and Palo Alto school districts have broken ground on or completed housing projects that aim to provide educators with subsidized housing in an effort to retain them.
Two years ago, the OUSD board approved agreements for the former Tilden Child Development Center and the shuttered Edward Shands Adult School, two long-vacant properties, to be converted into housing and multi-use developments. The projects have yet to break ground. Since then, a preliminary permit application has been filed for the Tilden property to develop one, two, and three bedroom units, along with retail and parking spaces. The leases that the school board approved in 2021 stipulated that half of the residential units would be rented to OUSD workers.
But there’s a desire among school district officials to develop a better process for identifying unused properties that can be developed into housing.
Last month, the school board’s facilities committee, composed of directors Sam Davis, Valarie Bachelor, and Clifford Thompson, unanimously approved a resolution directing district staff to put together a policy on repurposing vacant properties, with an eye toward building affordable housing for homeless youth and their families and the district’s workforce.
Next, the resolution will go to the full school board.
“Oakland Unified is one of the biggest landowners in the city of Oakland,” Davis said at a town hall he co-hosted with Director Jennifer Brouhard this week. “We have to think really carefully about what we want to use public land for. What better use than to provide housing for over 1,600 Oakland Unified families—probably a lot more at this point—that don’t have housing or have very risky shared housing, and there’s so many educators that could also be provided support.”
For these kinds of projects to be successful, school districts must start by discussing potential options with the community and other stakeholders, said Troy Flint, the communications director for the California School Boards Association. Last year, the state school board association collaborated with UC Berkeley’s Terner Center, Center for Cities & Schools, and UCLA’s Citylab to publish a report examining school districts around the state and their efforts to build workforce housing. CSBA also hosts a workshop for districts that are interested in developing housing on their properties.
“It’s not something to be taken lightly, so there needs to be a substantial exploratory process and community engagement and alignment between the governing board of a local education agency, the unions, other stakeholders in the school district, and potentially municipal or county partners,” Flint told The Oaklandside. “Financing is a potential barrier. There are political considerations—some people object to the repurposing of school district property for housing. There’s always a question of which site to choose, what the impact will be on the neighborhood, and whether the neighborhood is receptive to the idea.”
Those conversations are just getting started in Oakland. At this week’s town hall organized by Davis and Brouhard, housing advocates and public officials discussed how affordable housing could be built on OUSD properties.
“As one of the largest landowners in Alameda County, OUSD has land to develop housing, but we can’t do this alone. We need to collaborate with the state and county and the city to finance housing, and to manage housing complexes once they’re built,” Brouhard said.
Brooklyn Williams, who serves as chief of education and community safety for Mayor Sheng Thao, is leading a community-driven effort to develop the former OUSD headquarters at 1025 Second Avenue near Lake Merritt. The building, which has sat vacant since it flooded 10 years ago, will become short-term housing and provide career and technical education programs and mental health and academic support for older teens and young adults who are transitioning out of foster care or juvenile detention.
The so-called “CTE TAY Hub” can be a model for OUSD and the rest of the nation, Williams said.
“For any project we’re in that involves serving the community using district lands, I think it’s really important to start with the community. Those ideas and those solutions should be extracted from the ground up,” Williams said.
Financing these kinds of projects is another hurdle. The CTE TAY Hub is mostly being supported with public funds, including a grant from the city of Oakland and OUSD bond funds. OUSD can currently tap into a $750 million facilities bond that voters approved in 2020 to upgrade OUSD schools.
When surveyed, Oakland teachers have said that housing affordability and the cost of living are the biggest factors contributing to their wanting to leave the district.
“California has a lot of challenges right now, but most of our problems are downstream from education and housing affordability,” Flint told The Oaklandside. “A cool aspect of education workforce housing is that it enables us to address two of the most significant hurdles we face as a state at the same time. And it carries benefits not just for the employees but for the students they serve as well.”