santa cruz teachers
February 2020

Local Teachers are Hungry, Homeless and Leaving

What can we do to keep our teachers local?

By Suki Wessling

LL teaches Transitional Kindergarten full-time for a Santa Cruz public school. For six weeks, she had to live in her car.

Cate and Jon felt like they were just throwing their rent money into a hole in the ground, but they don’t have family who could help with a down payment in our expensive real estate market.

santa cruz teachers

The president of Cabrillo College, Matthew Wetstein, is still renting, unsure whether he’ll be able to buy a home.

Welcome to the teacher’s life….in Santa Cruz County, at least.

It used to be that teaching was a solid middle-class profession. A teacher could buy a home and raise a family on one income. In most urban markets in the U.S., that sounds like the set-up for a joke.

“I called my landlord to ask if he could live with me and he said ‘OK’,” LL starts, explaining how she ended up homeless after she took in a friend’s dog. “It was a voice message, sadly, so no proof. He decided a few months later ‘no pets’ even though the people before me had a dog, and he gave us 24 hours to get out!”

LL, who is 37, ended up living out of her car for six weeks while searching for new housing. All the while she held down a full-time, salaried position at a local school district and also drove up to 16 hours a week for Uber. She eventually found a single room in a house for $1525 per month.

Then the landlord started raising the rent bit by bit, for the dog, when her boyfriend moved in, then when they wanted to have a barbecue in the yard, and so on. “So then we are paying $1900 for a room! Insanity!!!” LL remembers.

Then she heard about Landed.

Can you make money while doing good things?

“Our co-founders had attended Stanford Business School and were wondering how they themselves could afford to buy a home in the Bay Area, let alone teachers, firefighters, police—all these professions that have to live in the community they serve,” explains Ian Magruder, head of Partnerships at Landed.

The founders realized that Stanford University was already modeling a solution, by investing in homes for their professors and staff. But most educational institutions don’t have billions in an endowment—they need a source of cash if they are going to offer to help out.

Landed’s model is pretty simple: the company matches the teacher’s 10 percent down payment in the competitive real estate markets they serve. The company views the home as a long term investment. 

The teachers view it as home.

“We definitely couldn’t have purchased a home without Landed,” remembers Cate, who teaches first grade in a local public school. She and her husband have moved into a little house in the woods of Aptos after considering life with a baby in their tiny studio apartment.

“Jon has been loving doing home improvement things,” Cate says. “I love that I have a laundry in my house, just little things like that.”

Keeping teachers in the community

“In my conversations with school leaders and families, I know that anytime you lose an educator it’s a loss not just for that school but for the whole community,” says Magruder, whose mother and sister are both local teachers. “It’s important for the students that they’re serving, the businesses in the community, the civic life, and vibrance of the community.”

Magruder points out that teachers need support early on. “It’s important to keep people around for the first few years. Once they stay for four years they are likely to stay for their whole career.”

Administrators are well aware of how real estate prices are affecting the quality of our schools.

“In the past five years, we have lost 51 teachers due to the cost of living in Santa Cruz,” Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Kris Munro wrote in an email to families. “Finding any rental housing is a challenge and finding affordable housing is nearly impossible in our community.”

Dr. Matthew Wetstein, President of Cabrillo College, has similar concerns: Cabrillo has also lost employees who can’t afford to stay. “Every employer in this county faces this problem, paying enough to make a living wage.”

An ongoing problem

 The problem with an approach like Landed’s is that the teachers need to come up with a minimum downpayment, and some teachers simply don’t have that much. 

“[My husband] is a geologist for a local geology firm,” Cate explains. “If he was a teacher as well, I don’t know if we would have been able to come up with the funds.”

Meanwhile, TK teacher LL just couldn’t do it. “Due to the price of houses in the area, even with Landed’s help, I was unable to put anything down.”

Landed doesn’t invest in mobile homes, which was all LL could afford, even while working full time and driving evenings and weekends for Uber and Grubhub. 

“It was all the money I ever had and the biggest loan of my life to get the old mobile home, but now, thank goodness, we are secure with no more fear of living out of my car!” LL says.

Keeping it local

LL’s degrees are from three local institutions: Cabrillo, UCSC, and CSUMB. Cate moved from out of state and met native Californian Jon, who attended UCSC. Ian Magruder’s mom moved from Germany to attend UCSC and his sister was born here. But no matter where they come from, teachers are integral to the local fabric.

“Recruiting from our local community is essential,” writes Superintendent Munro. “This past fall, we hired six teachers who were former students in our district!”

Cate agrees that it’s better if teachers don’t commute in for their jobs. “When you have teachers in the community, you foster school connectedness, stronger school community—everything benefits when you have teachers that are long term.”

Santa Cruz has been extremely proactive, as one of the first communities to welcome in Landed with an investment from the Community Foundation and the support of the county administration.

But Santa Cruz has only made a small start against a wave of problems facing everyone who doesn’t have family wealth or a high-paying job to fall back on. This is nothing less than a battle to save the fabric of our community, one teacher at a time.

Suki Wessling is a local writer and educator. She’s happy to say that she and her husband bought their house in the 90’s, when the prices seemed astronomically high! You can read more of her work and learn about her online courses for kids at www.SukiWessling.com.

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