Gerardo Garcia's workday is not yet done after he shuts the door of his seventh grade science classroom at Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto. For the last six years, he's spent two to three hours driving for Uber in the evenings.
Garcia, like many school staffers on the Peninsula, said he has to find alternative means to bring in extra cash to pay for the high cost of living in the Bay Area, exacerbated by the recent spike in inflation. A father of three, he has worked for the district for two decades and rents a house in Redwood Shores with his wife, who is also a teacher.
"We moved about a year and half ago because the rent price went up," he said, noting that his family's basic needs take up 80% of their combined incomes. He said driving for the ride-hailing company takes away quality time with his family. "Gas, food, rent, everything is going up. … It's very difficult and expensive to support our family."
Garcia's experience mirrors that of other staffers in the Ravenswood City School District, according to a survey of 89 of the district's 300 staff members in May 2022. Twenty percent said the cost of housing is causing them to consider quitting their job. Two percent said they do not have access to reliable housing, and only one-third of respondents reported having a "safe, secure, and affordable housing option."
The district gave teachers a 10% raise last year, bringing salaries on par with neighboring school districts, but the bump is not enough to keep up with the cost of living in the Bay Area, they said.
Mario Zamora, an East Palo Alto native and athletic director at Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School, said he is also struggling to make ends meet. He rents out his ponies on the weekends for birthday parties and runs a summer camp called Camp Doza, which offers lessons in basketball, soccer, and farm culture at Ravenswood Ranch in East Palo Alto.
In response to developers purchasing Ravenswood Ranch, Zamora is planning to buy 40 acres of land two hours away, near Jackson, California, in the coming years. He wants to build cabins and bus kids from East Palo Alto there for camps. He said he will probably eventually need to move out himself since he can't afford to buy a home.
"Our neighborhood is lacking community in the sense that people, when they get in the workforce, they can't afford to stay there; they leave," he said. "Outsiders come into our community to teach our kids. If they can't relate to the kids, they (kids) are never going to give them their full attention."
"East Palo Alto has always been a little city tucked in the corner," he said. "The people with the restaurant jobs, cleaning jobs lived there. They're being pushed out toward the (Central) Valley."
Zamora, who has two young children, said some of his colleagues spend three or four hours a day commuting, getting up at 3 a.m. just to drive to the Bay Area for work.
"They're not going to be mentally healthy to do their job because they're worried about the commute or the rent," said Zamora, 37. "Housing is critical but at the same time my parents who did buy their house in '96 for dirt cheap – they deserve a good retirement. I'm happy he (my father) can sell his house for $1 million. It just sucks for us younger generation who are just never going to be able to afford to buy in their community."
Garcia and Zamora support the district's proposal to build up to 90 units of workforce housing at the 2.5-acre former James Flood Magnet School site in Belle Haven, close to U.S. Highway 101 next to Flood Park. The school operated from 1980 to 2011.
The plan has received pushback from nearby residents concerned about the project bringing traffic to their neighborhood. The site, at 321 Sheridan Drive in Menlo Park, is currently zoned for single-family homes (as of 1986). At the time, many of the neighbors felt that the residential designation was appropriate for the site given the surrounding area, and that doing so "provided control and protection from future use of the site," according to the city of Menlo Park.
"I like teaching there, however if this project can not be carried out, we will be forced to move to another area and leave everything behind," Garcia said. "Many of our colleagues are in the same situation."
Traffic from operating a school, the original use of the property, is much heavier than what would be generated by a housing development, a report from the city shows. The traffic impacts of a 90-unit residential development would create 400 new daily trips. By comparison, an elementary school with 275 students, the size of the Flood School before closure, would likely produce over 600 trips per day.
Menlo Park is currently facing a state mandate to zone for thousands of new homes, including plans to accommodate more than 1,000 units available for lower-income households. The Flood School project could help meet those affordable housing goals.
"There are certain stigmas or images that come to mind when it comes to affordable housing; racist tropes," said Chief Business Officer Will Eger. "It was personally powerful reading the responses of our staff (to the survey)."
Ravenswood Teachers Association (RTA) President Ronda White, a reading specialist and instructional coach at Costaño School of the Arts, said she's lucky to live in the home she grew up in East Palo Alto with her two kids and mother.
White said she loves teaching in East Palo Alto, but knows that without affordable housing it's difficult for other teachers to live in the community they teach in.
"It was where I was born and raised," she said. "It's where I get my values and beliefs. … The location is beautiful and the soil grows everything. … change is necessary but it can be difficult. To the people who are nervous or confused (about developing the Flood site into housing), through this process, I hope they'll figure out a way to be a little more compassionate."
Other key findings in the survey showed:
• 43% of respondents are considering leaving the district because of the cost of housing or the length the of their commute
• Over 70% of respondents indicated an interest in workforce housing; over 60% of those responded that housing would make them "much more likely" to stay with the district
• Another 38% said the length of the commute is causing them to consider quitting their job
• 85% of respondents had incomes and household sizes that would make them eligible for affordable housing; of those, a further 85% are interested in workforce housing
The survey also estimated that the district would need over 200 units of affordable housing to meet the needs of staff. Close to 75% of district faculty and staff rent.
Ravenswood school board member Ana Maria Pulido said the survey was very helpful for understanding the needs of the districts.
"I remember a few years ago when we considered workforce housing, the numbers weren't strong enough for us to move forward with the project at that time," she said. "It's reassuring us we're in the right direction in terms of that project is concerned."
In 2018, staff brought a proposal to build below-market-rate apartments at the Flood School site. But further analysis found that the project was not economically feasible, according to the city. All of the bids assumed a higher level of density at the time.
The district last surveyed staff three years ago when it initially explored building workforce housing at the Flood site, Eger said. The district wanted to revisit and update the survey.