A Major City's Solution to Teachers' Money Problems: Let Them Live at School

Miami is taking the trend of teacher housing one step further than other places. But do teachers want to live where they work -- even if it means cheaper rent?
by | April 10, 2018
Miami-Dade County is considering building a complex with as many as 300 residential units on this school campus. (Wikimedia Commons)

Teacher strikes have lit up red states over the last month as educators reach their breaking point with stagnant wages and inadequate education funding.

But teachers struggle to make ends meet all over the country.

On average, teachers make just 60 percent of what similarly educated professionals are paid, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In some of the most expensive cities, they struggle to put a roof over their heads.

In a 2017 Apartment List analysis, San Francisco was the worst offender: Fifth-year teachers in the city have to spend nearly 70 percent of their income -- almost three times the recommended amount -- to rent a one-bedroom apartment. Miami, New York and Seattle all closely follow San Francisco on the list.

In Miami, where the average teacher spends 50 percent of their income on rent, local officials are proposing a novel solution: Let teachers live at school.

A preliminary proposal before Miami-Dade County outlines plans for the construction of new apartments on school property, which would be rented out to low-income people but give preference to school staff. Because the district can sidestep the area’s high land prices, it says they can charge cheaper rates.

The first step would be to construct a new middle school with one floor carved out for residential units for teachers. Next, the county would build a complex with as many as 300 units on an elementary school campus.

“When people talk about the need for more workforce housing, teachers are at the top of that list," says Michael Liu, director of the Miami-Dade Public Housing Agency, which is leading the effort, along with the school system.

Miami is one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the country. The median value of a single-family home is around $330,000 -- more than twice what a teacher could afford on the median $40,000 salary. And the layout of the sprawling city presents added difficulties, says Ned Murray, associate director of the metropolitan center at Florida International University.

"A lot of teachers, and workers in general, have added transportation costs. [Miami] lacks premium transportation service like other cities have,” says Murray, who believes the new proposal could make a real difference for teachers. "Given the high cost of land, when it’s already a city-owned property at least you can eliminate that land cost. You have much more flexibility with pricing and density."

Teachers, though, don't appear to share Liu and Murray's excitement about the idea.

"The sentiment [of teachers] is that this plan is insulting to them," says Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, the county's teacher's union. "Instead of finding a real solution where we can afford to live where we teach, they say we'll give you the opportunity to live on campus at your school? That's not very appealing."

Teachers she's spoken with are concerned about how their work and home lives might mix if they live at the school. If some students' families take up residence in the school apartments, it could result in students knocking on teachers' doors at 8 o'clock at night to ask about homework assignments, she says.

Moreover, Hernandez-Mats says it would only benefit younger teachers who are less likely to have families.

"A very small percentage may want to live in those conditions," she says, "but it's [a solution] designed for a transient workforce. In order to be an expert in what you're teaching, it takes about seven years. You're disenfranchising that expert teacher." 

While the idea of building apartments directly on school property is unique, other governments -- mostly in California -- are building teacher-specific housing in their jurisdictions.

In San Francisco, voters approved a $310 million housing bond in 2015, with $80 million set aside to build middle-income housing for teachers on land owned by school districts and to provide teachers with mortgage subsidies.

In Los Angeles County, the school district constructed a complex with 66 affordable units for teachers. To live there, though, renters must earn between 30 and 60 percent of the area's median income, and most teachers earn too much. Most of its tenants are school district service workers.

In Santa Clara County, where the Silicon Valley tech boom has led to skyrocketing home prices, local officials want to turn a public parking lot into teacher housing.

School districts across the state of Colorado, both rural and urban, are also looking into building their own housing for teachers and other school personnel.

“This year when it comes to hiring season, I will probably struggle to replace four to six teachers because of housing. It’s in the middle of every conversation about quality staff,” David Blackburn, superintendent of the Salida School district in Central Colorado, told The Atlantic last year.

In Miami, the most recent proposal is reflective of many of these same problems.

“This is one part of a long-term solution. This is exciting because it’s more than just one site, one property,” says Liu. “There are other schools -- public, private and parochial -- that might want to think about, ‘hey, let’s maximize the use of our properties.’”

Teachers, on the other hand, are hoping for a different kind of long-term solution.

"This is not a real solution to the problem that we know exists," says Hernandez-Mats. "What about teachers that have families? They're not accounting for anything like that."

*CORRECTION: A previous version misstated that teachers make 60 less than similarly educated professionals. They actually make 60 percent of what similarly educated professionals are paid.