Fact: In 80 percent of the largest school districts, a teacher with a master’s degree and five years’ experience cannot comfortably afford housing payments. How is it possible in a society that claims to value education that home ownership for teachers is out of reach?
Kat Shannon became a teacher because she wanted a better life.
Previously, she worked as a restaurant manager. Teaching, she figured, offered a better schedule than the restaurant business, and would allow her to nurture the next generation. But living on a teacher’s salary is proving far more difficult than she ever guessed.
“I expected to be able to provide for my family,” says Shannon, a third-year middle school ELA teacher in Liberty, Texas, which is located about 30 minutes northwest of Houston. Instead, “I take home less now when I was waiting tables part-time.” She and her one-year-old daughter live with Shannon’s mother in a house purchased by Shannon’s mom, because the cost of housing is too high for her to live independently. A two-bedroom apartment in her area runs about $1000 per month, and Shannon is still paying about $500 per month toward student loans.
“By the time I’d pay for an apartment, student loans and utilities, that would be it. There’d be nothing left for food, gas, diapers or formula,” Shannon says.
Unfortunately, her predicament is far from unique.
A 2017 survey by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found that new teachers cannot afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in more than 25% of the 124 largest school districts in the country. In eight districts—West Ada, ID; Jordan, UT; Loudon County, VA; and San Francisco, Oakland, Capistrano, and Los Angeles, CA—it’s virtually impossible for teachers at the maximum end of the salary scale to find reasonable housing without spending far more than the recommended 30% or less of their salaries.
Even in districts with relatively low housing costs, home ownership for teachers is difficult. According to the NCTQ survey, teachers with five years of experience struggle to afford monthly rent or housing payments in Oklahoma City, El Paso and Omaha. Teachers in rural parts of the country—teachers like Shannon—often face the double whammy of limited and unaffordable housing.
Here, WeAreTeachers community members share their stories:
“If it weren’t for my husband’s salary, we’d be homeless now.”
In her first years of teaching, Julia Bietsch “made such little money that the only place I could afford to live was an apartment complex full of people using/dealing drugs,” she says. “The police were there constantly, ambulances came several times a week for drug overdoses, and I had to call the cops on my neighbors several times because they were fighting so loudly that I thought one of them might kill the other.”
Around St. Louis, Missouri, where Bietsch lives and works, the median rent price is $1000 per month, according to Zillow. Bietsch, now in her fifth year of teaching third grade, only earns about $27,000 gross annually. (She works at a Catholic school.)
“I make about half of what an apartment would cost me,” Bietsch says. Her husband’s salary, she says, is what allowed them to purchase a two-bedroom, two-bath house in a safe neighborhood one year ago. “He basically covers all the bills with his salary. Mine essentially pays my student loan payment,” Bietsch says.
To ease the financial crunch—and her financial anxiety—Bietsch babysits part-time and makes and sells jewelry.
“I’m never going to have the American dream.”
Sheryl Cleavinger-Perry is a National Board Certified Teacher with a Master’s degree and 17 years of teaching experience. She’s also currently living in a house her parents purchased.
A high school agriculture teacher, Cleavinger-Perry had a hard time finding housing for herself and her two children when she moved back to rural Kansas from Washington State. There were few homes for rent, and all of the available apartments were designated as senior or low-income housing. Cleavinger-Perry made too much to qualify for low-income housing—but not enough to independently qualify for a mortgage.
“My parents bought the house, and I pay the mortgage that’s in their name,” Cleavinger-Perry says. Her take-home pay is about $2600 per month. To help make ends meet, Cleavinger-Perry shops thrift stores and gladly accepts meat and veggies from her parents’ farm. She also works the entry gate at nearly every home athletic event. “It’s not much—$22 per nigh—but my kids get to play with their friends and I don’t have to worry about childcare.”
“My first paycheck didn’t have a comma in it.”
When Wendy Fry moved from Iowa to Arizona, she expected a cut in pay. She didn’t expect that she’d struggle to pay her bills.
Fry, a Master’s-prepared high school science teacher, had more than a decade of experience when she moved to a suburb of Phoenix. Her first bimonthly paycheck was just $980; rent and utilities ran $950 per month.
She pondered breaking her lease, but the only cheaper places she could find had “drugs and homeless people who sleep in their yards,” Fry says. She even considered breaking her contract with the school and becoming an insurance agent instead. “I was crying thinking about the fact that I might have to give up teaching,” Fry says. “I love teaching. But I was also thinking about the fact that I can’t afford to live.”
Fry ultimately completed her year in Arizona. She survived financially by charging groceries and gas. “I was down to about $200 on my credit card when I moved to Arizona. By the time I left, my credit card was up to about $8000,” Fry says.
Fry currently lives and teaches in southwest Iowa. She recently bought a three-bedroom home.
We’d love to hear—what has been your experience entering into the housing market? Please share in the comments. We hope to share additional stories about home ownership for teachers in the coming months.