This spring, schoolteacher strikes spread like wildfire across the nation as fed-up educators from a half-dozen states took their frustration over low salaries and dwindling budgets out of the classrooms and into the streets. The most recent example is North Carolina, where hundreds of schools were closed last month. Many of these public servants are struggling with the math: How can they make ends meet when both rents and home prices have risen so sharply in recent years?
Some cities are experimenting with a possible solution: creating subsidized housing specifically for teachers and school staff. In pricey districts, the allure of discounted housing can give recruitment and retention efforts a boost. Projects like this already exist or are in the works in cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara, CA. And local and school officials in San Francisco and Miami are looking into getting on board.
“Providing subsidies and housing is a smart incentive,” says Sandi Jacobs, a principal at EducationCounsel, a Washington, DC–based education consulting group that works with states, school districts, and nonprofit organizations.
“There are certain metro areas where home prices … are so high compared to the average teacher’s salary,” Jacobs continues. “So it means teachers may have to live a significant distance from the school they’re teaching in, or they live with five roommates to afford their rent.”
She added that the problem can be just as bad in rural areas where there isn’t enough available housing—at any price range.
Most public school teachers are solidly middle-class. Nationally, elementary school teachers make a median $57,100 annually, while high school teachers earn a little more, at $59,170, according to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That’s more than the national median of $50,620 across all professions. But teachers make quite a bit less in some of the regions where strikes have erupted.
In Oklahoma, elementary school teachers made an average $40,530 annually. They earn an average $44,220 in Arizona, $45,530 in West Virginia, $45,690 in North Carolina, $52,390 in Colorado, and $53,140 in Kentucky. Teachers in every striking state but Kentucky have since won raises and cost-of-living bumps.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy—or even possible—to afford housing on these salaries. The median home price nationally is $279,900, while it costs about $1,170 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, according to realtor.com® and Apartment List data.
“Teaching is already more than a 40-hour-a-week job,” says Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association and a former high school social studies teacher. “If you also throw into the mix that educators are commuting over an hour each way to get to school because they can’t afford to live where they teach, then combine that with the fact that many are struggling to repay student loans, it’s really troubling and contributing to the teacher shortage.”
Teacher housing could soon be coming to San Francisco and Miami
These difficulties have led San Francisco and Miami to explore building subsidized housing for their educators and staff. Last fall, San Francisco city and school officials pledged $44 million to build 130 to 150 subsidized apartments for 60 to 90 teachers and up to 60 additional units for school staff on the same site on the city’s west side. It’s expected to take at least three years before the project is completed.
The development is a result of surging housing prices in San Francisco, where the median home list price is a jaw-dropping $1,300,000, according to the most recent realtor.com data.
For inspiration, San Francisco can look southward to Santa Clara, where the school district has been offering 70 one- and two-bedroom apartments at about 60% of market rate since 2002. Given that rents for closet-size units routinely top $2,000, this is a big help for many cash-strapped public servants.
In Miami, the county is looking into building a middle school with one floor reserved for residential units for teachers. If the project is a success, a housing complex of up to 300 apartments could also be constructed on the grounds of Phillis Wheatley Elementary, near downtown Miami.
Subsidized housing can make a big difference, if North Carolina’s Outer Banks are any indication. Dare County’s school district offers two housing complexes with 36 below-market, two-bedroom rental apartments for teachers.
“Historically, housing has been a challenge on the Outer Banks because it’s a resort community and housing is very expensive,” says Keith Parker, director of digital communications for North Carolina’s Dare County Public Schools. “Those units [we built] have been an unbelievable advantage in recruitment.”
That’s particularly true for harder-to-fill positions such as those in math, science, and foreign languages.
Subsidized housing can be a lifesaver for teachers
Spanish high school teacher Geoff Harte struggled to find rentals when he moved to the Outer Banks community of Hatteras, NC, in 2016.
“I’m from New York City and I lived in Miami for 15 years, so I know what expensive is,” says Harte, 44. But even in North Carolina, “living on the beach isn’t cheap.”
Luckily, he was able to move into the school district–run building in Hatteras, which is a five-minute walk from First Flight High School, where he teaches. He pays $750 a month for the two-bedroom he shares with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. That’s just over half of what a mortgage would cost for a similarly sized home.
“It makes it affordable to live down here,” says Harte. “I wish there were more places that offered it.”
For Aspen School District Superintendent John Maloy, offering teachers affordable housing is key to addressing the unique challenges of being an expensive resort area in Colorado, a state with relatively low teacher pay. Aspen already has 44 units of affordable housing renting for $850 to $1,500 a month (market rates here easily exceed $2,000). The district has also been in discussions for the past year to bring 10 to 15 more units into the fold.
Here’s how Maloy sees the main challenges of attracting educators: “It’s a shortage of teachers, No. 1; a high cost of living, No. 2; and salary, No. 3. You’ve got to try to tackle all of those simultaneously. You can’t really pinpoint one without having a conversation about the others.”
Creating affordable teacher housing may be easier said than done
But while helping teachers stay in the communities where they work may sound like a no-brainer, challenges have cropped up—and the impact on longer-term job retention isn’t yet known.
California, one of the first places to build subsidized teacher housing, has encountered more than its share of hiccups.
The Los Angeles Unified School District built three complexes with government money only to discover, after completion, that its teachers made too much (around $50,000) to qualify for any of the housing (max income: $34,860), according to governmental regulations.
In Cupertino, in the heart of Silicon Valley, plans by the Union School District to convert a former elementary school into teacher housing in 2015 fizzled out. Local residents objected to giving up school land for residential development.
“To have employees be part of the community fabric, they needed to find a way to have affordable housing,” says Aspen’s Maloy. “You can come up with a great plan, but you have to have your community buy into that plan.”