Struggling To Get By project badgeHawaii Rep. Scot Matayoshi recalls being a young science teacher in Nanakuli years ago, sharing an apartment with three other teachers in order to get by on his meager pay. Now a lawyer and lawmaker, Matayoshi is trying to give a hand to other fledgling teachers on Oahu.

A bill before the Legislature would help build affordable rentals for new teachers near Ewa Beach in what House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke says is a pilot project that could be replicated in other areas.

Co-authored by Matayoshi and Luke, the bill would allow the state to buy land behind Holomua Elementary School for development into 200 to 300 units, which would be rented at below market rates to starting teachers.

Construction fencing on a large parcel of land located next to Holomua Elementary in Ewa.
A proposed bill would turn a vacant lot in Ewa Beach into affordable rentals for teachers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The measure has quietly progressed through the House and its first Senate committee with only minor changes. Its last stop is the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“Every year, we struggle with teacher recruiting, teacher retention,” Luke said. The measure, she said, is meant to address that at little cost to the state.

Specifically, the bill would authorize the state to buy a 12-acre parcel behind Holomua Elementary “to develop affordable housing, with priority given to Department of Education classroom teachers in the beginning of their career.”

The bill doesn’t specify the amount to be paid for the property, which is now open space owned by the developer Gentry Homes Ltd., builder of the nearby Ewa Gentry subdivision. Matayoshi said he believes the state could acquire the land for a nominal price.

Representative Scot Matayoshi listens during joint WAM Finance info meeting held at the Capitol Auditorium.
Rep. Scot Matayoshi, right, pictured in 2019, says his teachers housing bill could provide 200 to 300 rental units at “almost no cost” to taxpayers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

There would be little cost to the state beyond the land, he said. Instead, he said, the state would give the developer a credit waiving the school impact fees developers typically must pay to help offset the burdens placed on schools by new housing nearby.

The measure also requires the state to guarantee a commercial loan of up to $5 million to construct the housing.

“It’s almost no cost to the state,” Matayoshi said.

Hawaii is hardly the first locale to look at providing affordable housing for teachers. In California, the Santa Clara school district’s Casa Del Maestro teacher apartments pioneered a model gaining momentum in other Golden State school districts. The 70-unit apartment site is owned by the school district and located next to an elementary school.

The idea is taking off in pricey Northern California. According to a recent article in the education trade publication EdSource, the area is seeing a boom in teacher housing, with construction underway on projects in Mountain View and Daly City.

Meanwhile, the publication reported, Santa Clara County supervisors have approved several projects on county property in Palo Alto. Facebook is covering a quarter of the $103 million cost, EdSource reported.

A study by researchers at UCLA and UC Berkeley recently identified opportunities across the state to develop teacher housing on school-owned property, an idea championed in Hawaii by state Sen. Stanley Chang in a bill that went nowhere this session.

California seems steps ahead of Hawaii in addressing problems that the two states share.

“Many of the 300,000 public school teachers cannot afford to live in the communities where they work, forcing them to commute long distances or pushing them out of the education system altogether,” the California study says. “Attracting new teachers has also grown more challenging.”

The researchers pointed to the Santa Clara project as a model solution.

“Santa Clara Unified School District’s Casa del Maestro reduced its attrition rate by two-thirds for teachers supported by the housing development, compared with others in the same cohort, and waitlists demonstrate consistently high demand — 80% of its tenants stay the full allowable rental term,” the report said.

Luke said she was aware of California’s efforts, and although Hawaii has lagged, its statewide school district gives it an advantage. While California counties generally must pay for teacher housing through property taxes that voters must approve, Hawaii’s statewide school district means the state would pay without going to voters, she said.

Critics Say Bill Should Not Favor Starting Teachers

Still, the Matayoshi-Luke proposal has critics. In testimony, the Hawaii Government Employees Association said the project should be open to all state workers, not just teachers. And, even though it testified for the bill, the Hawaii State Teachers’ Association said it should be amended to not waive school impact fees.

In addition, the teachers union testified the housing should be open to all teachers, not only ones just starting out.

Osa Tui, Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, declined an interview request.

Matayoshi said in his experience starting teachers need the most help. Novice teachers will benefit from the support gained by living in a community of peers facing the same struggles, he said.

Plus, Matayoshi said, there are the financial benefits: He said rents will be about $1,000 per month less than market rates. Making it past the first two years, he said, is key for teachers.

“Getting them over that first hump is really going to help with teacher retention,” he said.

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