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Where Affordable Housing Is Scarce, So Are Teachers

To get people to teach in expensive or rural areas, some school districts are offering to help pay their rent or mortgage.

The median price of a home in San Francisco is now over over $1.1 million.
From New York to Los Angeles, with stops in between, school districts are confronting teacher shortages. As South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said in his recent State of the State address: “The quality of education suffers when the schools cannot be selective and have to hire from a limited pool.”

One of the major reasons districts are short on educators is housing. 

In many urban areas, the cost of housing is so high that educators simply cannot afford to live anywhere near the school where they teach. As a result, many wind up with a tortuous commute after working long hours.

The problem also extends to rural areas where there’s practically no rental housing market, and teachers are forced to come up with a down payment for a home. Not many have that kind of cash on hand.

These housing shortages are problematic not only for recruitment but also when it comes to retention of teachers. That’s because a new, young teacher might be able to afford an apartment or a house by renting with roommates, but if they get married and have children, it can be impossible for the family to find an affordable place to live. 

When districts fail to retain teachers, the quality of the educational system suffers. According to Anne Podolsky of the Learning Policy Institute, “we found that teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement throughout a teacher's career.” On top of that, educators who live in the same area as their students also have a better understanding of their pupils’ roots, the places they gather and the general ambience of the community. 

So what are districts doing to address this issue?

One of the first to try to create more housing for teachers was Los Angeles, where the nation's second largest school district is working with a non-profit housing developer to build a 66-unit complex for teachers who cannot afford to live in the area. But the most comprehensive effort is in San Francisco, where housing prices are among the highest in the country: over $1,118,000 for the median-priced home. 

In November, San Francisco voters approved a $310 million housing bond -- the first of its kind to win acceptance at the ballot box in nearly a generation. About $80 million has been set aside to build middle-income rental housing on land owned by school districts and also to provide teachers with mortgage subsidies.

Outside of San Francisco, the Roaring Fork School District in western Colorado, which is near Aspen’s ski resorts, passed a $122 million school construction bond that included $15 million in rental subsidies for teachers.

Similar initiatives are beginning to blossom in rural areas, too. 

Although one of the earliest such initiatives in McDowell County, W.Va., has been slow to get off the ground, an effort in rural North Carolina has begun to show positive results. In 2007, Hertford County used a $2.4 million interest-free, 15-year loan from the State Employees Credit Union Foundation to build 24 housing units for educators. That may not sound like a lot, but the turnover rates dropped sharply -- from around 40 percent a year to between 15 and 20 percent. Similar efforts followed in three more counties. 

Though North Carolina’s work has been paying off, there’s no widespread empirical evidence that helping teachers afford housing reaps the sought-after outcomes. But despite the ongoing cry to require evidence-based outcomes before investing public dollars, this is one case where common sense is very persuasive.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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