Nicole Rinehart dreamed of one day owning a home as her grandparents and parents had done in Sonoma County on middle-class incomes.
But as housing prices have soared more quickly than her teacher salary, she said it’s unlikely she and her firefighter husband will ever afford a down payment for a house.
“We just welcomed our daughter in July, and it terrifies me that our housing situation is subject to the whims of a landlord who could raise the rent,” said Rinehart, who lives in a two-bedroom condominium in Rohnert Park with her husband, their newborn daughter and two cats.
Rinehart, a lifelong Sonoma County resident and fifth-grade teacher at Village Elementary School in the Rincon Valley Union School District, said their $1,950 monthly rent takes up 60 percent of her teaching income, or 40 percent of their combined household income.
“It seems unfair that as two public servants who give so much time and effort to our communities, we are unable to afford a home in our community,” she said.
The Sonoma County Office of Education is looking for ways to help teachers such as Rinehart.
It’s considering building 30 to 35 town homes for public school teachers and employees who are unable to afford the area’s rising housing costs on 3 acres of land it owns behind Amarosa Academy in southwest Santa Rosa. It’s accepting proposals from affordable housing developers until the end of September.
Twelve developers have expressed interest so far, Sonoma County Schools Superintendent Steve Herrington said.
“Housing is not our priority; education is. We’re just trying to create an avenue of opportunity for our workforce,” he said.
A heightened crisis
For years, the housing crisis has been a major quandary for public school employees that was exacerbated by the October wildfires, which destroyed about 5,300 homes in the county. About 40 percent of Herrington’s employees recently surveyed said they’ve considered leaving the area because of the high housing costs.
“Take that with the teacher shortage, and we’ve got a big problem,” Herrington said. “We need teachers. Schools are the heart of any good community.”
Rinehart, who has taught for four years, said several friends have left the area because of the high cost of living, and she has also considered moving her family to a more affordable area, perhaps in Oregon or Washington.
If the SCOE project comes to fruition, she said she would be interested in living there. On top of her high rent in Rohnert Park, she said her finances are stretched between her $50,000 student loan debt and two car payments.
It could take three years for the project to be completed.
Herrington said priority would likely be given to employees in “hard-to-fill” credentialed positions, such as adaptive physical education teachers who work with disabled students, school nurses, speech and language therapists.
To combat the teacher shortage, his office launched the North Coast School of Education in 2016 to train teachers locally.
Once they receive their credentials through the school, the reality of the area’s cost of living sinks in for many teaching candidates, Herrington said. Many express the need to move away.
“On the one hand, the area is incredibly desirable; on the other hand the area is incredibly expensive,” said David Stecher, school board president of the West Sonoma County Union High School District.