After a full day of working at Raymond J. Fisher Middle School, sixth-grade teacher Elizabeth Sharkey would make the hourlong drive from Los Gatos to a small room she rented in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
That room was more of a closet, Sharkey said, and did not have a kitchen, yet it cost half her monthly income.
Now, Sharkey lives in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Los Gatos—just minutes from the school where she works—at a fraction of the rent. She is one of four teachers and school staff who moved into a below-market-rate housing development made possible by Sarah Chaffin and the SupportTeacherHousing.org team.
“What I could afford was living in a little hovel in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and it wasn’t a good rental situation,” Sharkey said. “When this came up, I was just really fortunate that I got to do it because it was exactly what I needed right now. It is going to enable me to save some money instead of spending half of my income on rent.”
The first of its kind, four-unit development was meant to help the “missing middle” — those who make too much to qualify for traditional affordable housing but not enough to live in the communities they work in.
Teachers have been priced out of the suburbs of Silicon Valley, some commuting several hours every day to and from work and others moving to other states where they can afford to live.
More than 90 people filled out interest forms for the four units with rent ranging from $1,600 for one bedroom to to $2,300 for two bedrooms. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Los Gatos is $3,387, and a one-bedroom apartment is $2,411, according to Zumper.
Gloria Prado, an administrative assistant with the Los Gatos Union School District, moved into one of the two-bedroom units with her husband Leo and 19-month-old son Mateo.
Prado and Leo had been living in an apartment in West San Jose for more than a decade. They had roomed with other educators to keep costs low before Mateo was born.
“We’ve lived here so long at our current unit in San Jose, so we’re excited to start a new chapter, and the commute’s going to be very short for me,” Prado said. “I already got some really good referrals for daycare centers.”
Chaffin said the residents will also take financial empowerment classes to help them save for a down payment on a house.
“The dream, the goal, is to be able to buy a house some day. As a single person, a teacher, living in the Bay Area … how is that ever going to be possible?” said Anna Fogarty, who teaches fourth grade at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. “I like to think I’m fairly good at saving, but still, so much goes to rent, so much goes to just living your life.”
Fogarty and Alice Bowie, who teaches transitional kindergarten at St. Joseph Catholic School, were living together in downtown Campbell before they moved to Los Gatos, and they are saving $900 per month in rent in the new unit they share.
“To be able to protect that much more (money) every single month. I think that’s pretty significant,” Fogarty said. “I can afford to pay rent; I’m very fortunate in that I have job security. But if we want people to be able to be able to move past that, these kinds of efforts are important.”
Both Bowie and Fogarty went to graduate school at Santa Clara University, where they had subsidized, affordable housing. Bowie had been struggling to find housing in Monterey, where she worked previously.
“I haven’t been able to really put a lot of money into savings because… all of my money was going toward rent,” Bowie said. “I just did not have a lot of extra money left over to travel or put money into savings, and both of those things are really important to me.”
Developer Chaffin said she was called to action more than 10 years ago after watching her daughter’s teachers move to different districts because of the lack of affordable housing for the missing middle. She partnered with Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and hosted town halls where teachers could share their experiences with community stakeholders to raise awareness.
Teachers shared the realities of their living situations, from renting illegally converted garages and couch surfing to living out of their cars. One teacher said he was living in an RV parked in a county park, and several teachers said they commuted hours to school every day.
“Educators are so essential and an important role in children’s education, and it would be great if the educators could be a part of the community instead of commuting one to two hours — or even more — outside of the community they teach,” Prado said.
Chaffin heard about the property in Los Gatos — which had a long history of failed affordable housing efforts — and worked with her team to develop a plan that made it through town council.
Construction wrapped on the units in November, and tenants started moving in at the start of this year.
The units have 9-foot-high ceilings, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, which were sourced from the leftovers of a local luxury build.
“We’re not paying less rent for worse living conditions. We’re living in a nice place for a lower rent, which is really nice,” Bowie said.
Chaffin said donations from local businesses and organizations were essential to getting the project completed and keeping costs low. Los Gatos Roofing built the roofs for free, and Adnac Fire Protection donated a $13,000 fire sprinkler system to the development.
Sharkey said living in the community where she works is going to help her take a more active role in students’ lives. She often goes to students’ musical performances or football games, which are usually at night. That meant she’d have to drive back up Highway 17 after dark, which felt unsafe. When weather closed Highway 17, as it did during the recent snowstorms in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Sharkey would have to couch surf at her fellow teachers’ homes until roads reopened.
“Now I’m going to be able to ride my bike to school and back, and I’ll be able to attend more of the student events,” Sharkey said. “When (students) see their teachers at their performances or games, they light up; it’s unbelievable how excited and thrilled they are that you come to their events after school.”
Chaffin said she hopes the Los Gatos property can serve as a model for other cities to build similar complexes for the missing middle.
“The obvious issue is that teachers need to be paid more. But in the interim, having access to affordable housing is really helpful,” Bowie said.
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