Where the Teachers Live

June 27, 2017 by

Five years ago, as a teaching assistant at a small independent school in Denver, I made $15,000 a year. At the time, Denver’s housing market wasn’t nearly as challenging as it is today, but it still wasn’t easy to find a place that my roommate (another teacher) and I could really afford. We made it work - we both had second jobs, we only ate cheap sushi, and most of our furniture was second-hand from friends or relatives. We went out with our non-teacher friends, but only to happy hour; there were places they wanted to go and things they wanted to do that we just couldn’t afford.

The next year, a new roommate and I got a lucky break. She was a part of the Stanley Teacher Prep program and, as such, she had access to subsidized apartments that Stanley owned. Our apartment wasn’t fancy by any means. It was a simple two-bedroom in a building the school had inherited on their chunk of former Lowry Air Force Base property. But our total rent was $400 a month.

I was one of the lucky few. When I started researching the efforts and challenges around affordable teacher housing across the country, I was startled to find how dire many teachers’ situations actually are. For many, it was worse than just cheap sushi.

I learned that San Francisco, with a median rent of $3,500 a month, reliably comes up as the least affordable city for teachers. To afford that median rent, the average San Francisco teacher would have to spend 64 percent of his or her salary on housing.

I read about Rebecca Sheehan-Stross, a kindergarten teacher in San Francisco. I read that Sheehan-Stross is 32, that she makes $55,000 a year, and that she pays $1,200 a month for rent, a figure which didn’t seem bad until I read that she pays that much to rent a dining room in an Oakland apartment. A dining room. With no doors. No closet. No privacy. On top of that, she babysits during the school year and nannies over the summer to make ends meet. I read that Sheehan-Stross isn’t sure how much longer she can make it work.

I read about teachers who have second jobs and GoFundMe pages. I read about a teacher’s aide who got permission from her principal to live at her school temporarily until she could find another place to live. I read about a high school math teacher named Etoria Cheeks, again, in California, who is actually homeless. She was renting a bedroom in a house that was, she learned upon eviction, under foreclosure. After she was unable to recoup her security deposit, Cheeks put her belongings in storage, stayed in hostels for almost a month, and finally spent a night in a homeless shelter. She’s since been taken in by a retired teacher who’s letting her use the guest room while she searches for a new place to live.

By and large, the most harrowing tales I read were from teachers in the San Francisco area, but I knew the problem was more widespread. I know teachers in Denver who have searched for months for a house in their price range, who have been outbid and beat out by people paying cash. I know teachers who clean yoga mats as payment for attending yoga. I know a teacher in Denver who took up real estate as a side gig when she realized there was no way to afford her life on a teacher’s salary. And it’s not just the city either. I talked with teachers in rural Colorado who couldn’t pay their bills were it not for the generosity of a local family who lets teachers live rent-free in their house, teachers who chop firewood in exchange for personal training sessions, teachers who work at the pizza place in town after school and all day Saturday to afford their lives.

But, my research also revealed hope. As I’ve blogged about before, there are people trying to solve these issues. There are developers doing it themselves - using tax credits and creativity to offer affordable rentals for teachers. There are districts realizing this is a challenge and working to address it, offering their land, their buildings, their bond dollars, etc.

There are ways to help teachers who need help with housing, and there are people trying. My hope is that this report, Affordable Housing Solutions for Educators, will help those looking for solutions, for ideas, for places to start. Wide and varied examples of housing solutions for teachers are documented - developer-driven initiatives and district-driven ones, big ones and small ones, urban and rural. Hopefully, you can use this to learn from those who have come before. What my report fails to document are the people involved, the teachers struggling to find a place to live, resigning themselves to extra hours of work, moving further from where they teach. But keep them in mind while you read.

Affordable teacher housing is not a panacea for all the issues confronting teachers and school districts. It’s just one prong of what must be a multi-pronged approach to alleviate the challenges faced by teachers across the country. It’s one response to one symptom of a much larger issue. But we feel it’s better to start somewhere, and housing is essential - the place where each of us starts and ends our days.