Due to the effects of the COVID pandemic and the unique challenges of the past few years, districts are scrambling to fill teacher shortages and entice teachers to apply for jobs. Some states, like Washington, are bending the rules, bringing emergency certified teachers on board. Other states, like Hawaii, are offering bonus incentive pay ($10,000!) to fill specialty teaching positions. California is taking a different approach: building affordable housing for teachers. Sounds good, but will it really work?
Teacher Salaries Are at an All-Time Low
Districts struggle to hire and retain teachers largely due to low pay. Teachers don’t go into the profession to make big bucks, but we do expect a livable wage. Many states have increased teacher salaries, but when those salaries are adjusted for inflation, they are less than they were in 2008. According to the 2022 NEA Teacher Salary Benchmark Report, in 2020-2021 “the average teaching salary was $41,770, an increase of 1.4 percent over the previous school year. When adjusted for inflation, this represents a four percent decrease.” And let’s not forget bus drivers, custodians, teachers’ aides, cafeteria workers, and other educational support staff. More than a third of all ESPs who work full-time earn less than $25,000 per year.
Housing Costs Are a Hardship for Teachers
Housing prices across the country are soaring, and mortgage rates are going up. Securing an affordable rental, let alone buying a home, is out of reach for many teachers. It’s no secret that many teachers work multiple jobs just to stay afloat, pay off student loans, and support their families. Worrying about whether or not teachers will be able to purchase a home or afford rent shouldn’t be part of the job. And yet for many, it is. And while most teachers love their work and are highly skilled, they are forced out of the profession because of financial instability and insecurity.
A New Wave of Teacher Housing
A district near pricey San Francisco has taken a new approach to the lack of affordable housing for teachers. Rather than looser certification requirements and signing bonuses, they built affordable teacher housing. The Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County’s Daly City opened 122 apartments for teachers and staff in May. Teachers pay $1,500 to live in a one-bedroom apartment within walking distance of their school. Sounds good, but there’s a catch: It’s temporary. Tenants at this school district complex can stay up to five years. In Hawaii, a bill before the legislature would help build affordable rentals for new teachers near Ewa Beach on Oahu. The bill proposes priority housing for classroom teachers in the beginning of their career. Sounds good. But experienced teachers need housing too.
A Higher Quality of Life
There’s no question that eliminating financial insecurity and hardship from teachers’ lives needs to be prioritized if districts want to hire and retain teachers. Affordable housing near school means teachers have shorter commutes and live in the communities where they teach. Teachers can provide the same educational opportunities for their own children as they provide their students. A second job or side hustle may become a choice rather than a necessity when teachers have affordable housing. At first glance, building affordable housing to retain teachers sounds promising, but I’m skeptical.
A Temporary Solution to a Long-Term Problem
The reason I am skeptical about this solution is because it is temporary. I don’t think it is realistic to assume that a teacher will save enough money to buy a house in five years in San Francisco. Only allowing certain teachers to benefit from these programs could create animosity amongst colleagues, leading to toxic school cultures. It feels cruel to help a teacher achieve a better lifestyle, only to remove that option in a few years. I worry teachers will quit after their housing is taken away, which will lead to more teacher hiring and retention problems.
The good news? School districts know there is a problem, and they are trying to come up with creative solutions to fix it. Because I am a teacher, I will remain hopeful and optimistic, but I’m not entirely sold on building affordable housing to retain teachers. Not yet.