Education Funding

School Districts Devising New Ways to Offer Teachers Affordable Housing

By Vaishali Honawar — August 08, 2006 7 min read
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In a new wave of plans to recruit and retain teachers who say they cannot afford to buy or rent homes in pricey school districts, officials are considering measures that would put affordable housing within their reach.

In Nevada’s Clark County, for instance, school officials are considering buying land and building affordable homes they would sell to teachers. In Florida’s Osceola County, the school board is lobbying to team with developers and build apartments that teachers could rent at below-market rates. And in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District in San Luis Obispo, Calif., school leaders are looking into the possibility of offering short-term loans to teachers to make it easier for them to buy houses.

According to the latest figures available from the American Federation of Teachers, the average salary for a beginning teacher in the country was $31,700, and $46,600 for the average teacher, in 2003-04. “By the time they have paid for college loans, transportation, and insurance, there is not much left in the paycheck for housing,” said Jewell Gould, the AFT’s director of research.

Housing Blueprints

District Plan
New York City $14,600 housing subsidy for new math, science, and special education teachers.
Clark County, Nev. Build homes on district-owned land and offer them to teachers at affordable rates.
San Luis Coastal Unified School District, Calif. Pay $100,000 toward co-purchasing a new house with an employee.
Osceola County, Fla. Team with developers and build apartments that would offer below-market rents to teachers.

SOURCE: School districts

He cites the San Francisco Bay Area, where, he says, teachers have found themselves driving two or three hours each way to their workplaces because they could not afford the high prices for housing in the city.

California, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Mississippi have all set up teacher-housing programs in the past to bring in and keep teachers. San Jose, Calif., has had a program in place since 1999, while Chicago last year announced it would give teachers up to $7,500 for down payments on mortgages.

But after the recent real estate boom sent prices out of teachers’ reach, some districts are taking extra steps to help ease the cost.

New York City, famous for its hefty housing costs, in April announced a housing-subsidy program for teachers. By late July, the district had found 95 qualified applicants for the 100 positions it expects to fill under the program for the upcoming school year, said Elizabeth Arons, the chief executive officer of human resources for the city’s schools. “We got a lot of phone calls immediately, and ended up getting 165 applications,” she said.

The 1.1 million-student school system is offering subsidies of up to $14,600 over two years to math, science, and special education teachers willing to work in some of its highest-need schools.

Teacher recruits who are certified in those subjects and have at least two years’ experience will get $5,000 upfront in housing expenses, including the cost of relocating to the city, and a $400 housing stipend monthly for two years. In return, they must work in the city schools for three years.

Qualified Success

Those who have had teacher-housing programs in place for a while say they have seen success, although the programs have not completely resolved housing- affordability issues for teachers.

New York City's schools helped lure math teacher Tiffany Judkins by subsidizing her Stuyvesant Town apartment near the Lower East Side.

San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley, offers teachers loans of up to $65,000 that do not have to be repaid for 30 years or until the house is sold.

The 32,000-student district has attracted 121 teachers since the program started, said spokeswoman Karen Fuqua. “We are very grateful for any kind of support that we can give our teachers,” she said. Still, she added, the district continues to face difficulties with recruitment and retention because home prices remain high. A National Association of Realtors report last year said San Jose was the most expensive metropolitan housing market in the nation, with a median home-sale price of $750,000.

Chicago school officials, meanwhile, cite great success: 248 teachers have received funds under the housing program to buy their first homes, said Diana M. Johnson, the manager of the Teacher Housing Center for the city’s school district, which has more than 426,000 students. “We almost ran out of money,” she said, adding that her center is now designing surveys for program participants to evaluate its effect on teacher-retention rates.

‘Icing on the Cake’

Teachers call housing assistance “icing on the cake.”

Tiffany Judkins, a math teacher who graduated with a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University this year and has worked two years as a teacher in Kerrville, Texas, is one of the recipients of the New York City housing subsidy. Ms. Judkins said the New York system was one of her top choices because she was intrigued by the challenges it presented.

While she might have chosen New York anyway, she said, the housing subsidy made the final decision easier: The $400 monthly stipend makes a small, yet helpful, dent in the $2,500 rent she splits with a roommate for a one-bedroom apartment they converted into a two-bedroom unit near Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Ms. Judkins, because of her experience, expects to earn around $51,000 in her first year as a teacher in New York City—more than the city’s average starting salary of $46,500 for a teacher with a master’s degree.

Ron Davis, a spokesman for New York’s teachers’ union, said that although more needs to be done to raise salaries and improve the standard of living for teachers, the United Federation of Teachers believes the housing subsidy “is a good step in the right direction.”

“We can’t knock this,” he said.

In Nevada’s 292,000-student Clark County district, which includes Las Vegas, officials are working on a proposal for attainable housing based on a University of California, Irvine, model.

George Ann Rice, the associate superintendent for human resources, said the district, which starts teachers at $33,000, has been facing recruitment and retention problems for several years. While paying teachers more is the simple answer to the problem, she said, it is not within the district’s control because money for teacher pay in Nevada flows from the legislature on a per-pupil basis.

Under the proposal, which would have to be approved by the school board, the district would use parcels of its own land to build houses that would then be offered to teachers at affordable rates.

For instance, a house that would normally cost $275,000 could be offered at, say, $220,000. “You bring the cost down because you take cost of land out of the deal,” Ms. Rice said.

The district would retain ownership of the land, and teachers could only sell the houses back to the school system. The only profit the teacher could realize would be any increase in the value of the structure itself.

District leaders hope that once teachers had struck roots in their community, they would be reluctant to leave.

The AFT’s Mr. Gould agrees that affordable-housing programs can foster ties between teachers and the school as well as the community and can make educators more willing to stay on.

Conditional Benefits

Although the New York City program is open only to newcomers to the city’s math, science, and special education teaching corps, most programs being considered would be open to all teachers.

Some, such as the San Luis district, are considering establishing a program for both teachers and support-staff workers.

In San Luis Obispo, on California’s central coast, the median house price is $620,000. The district would pay $100,000 toward co-purchasing a house with an employee. The employee’s family income would have to be approximately $75,000 for a purchase price of $450,000, including the $100,000 from the district, said Brad Parker, the buildings director for San Luis Coastal Unified. The average teacher salary in the district is around $64,000.

The district would use income from its buildings and property division to finance the program. Workers would have five years to buy out the district ownership. By then, Mr. Parker said, the employee’s family income and his or her home equity would likely have increased, offering a chance to restructure the loan and make payments more affordable.

‘Short-Term Solution’

Several Florida districts are pushing for legislation that would allow school boards to team with developers and build apartments that would offer housing to teachers, nurses, firefighters, and police officers.

Greg White, a recruitment specialist for the 50,000-student Osceola County district, which, besides Key West and Naples, is lobbying for the legislation, said several teachers have turned down jobs because of the cost of renting.

Starting pay for a new teacher in Osceola County is $36,000, and the cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment is around $900 a month, Mr. White said. In the past few years, he said, several properties have been converted into condominiums, shrinking the pool of available rental apartments.

Despite the optimism from school leaders in districts experimenting with housing assistance, some observers say that offering affordable housing is just a short-term solution to the long-standing issue of inadequate pay.

“Anything that helps teachers get housing is good, but it will not solve the long-term problem,” said Mary Ella Holloway, the president of the Clark County Education Association in Nevada. Increasing salaries, she believes, is the only permanent solution.

“If we hire 2,000 new teachers every year,” Ms. Holloway said, “we cannot build 2,000 new homes each year.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week as School Districts Devising New Ways To Offer Teachers Affordable Housing


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