Simple Math: Why Teacher Homeownership is Central to Improving Schools

This year’s South by Southwest EDU conference featured many of the most buzzed-about innovations in today’s educational landscape: immersive virtual reality experiences, social and emotional learning tools, computer science pathways for all students, and more. All these ideas deserve praise for their focus on improving outcomes for students and schools.

Still, in the ongoing national conversation about how to improve our education system, one important idea is often missing. We’re referring to a less publicized, yet equally vital solution for supporting our students and schools: financial security for our educators, in the form of affordable homeownership.

In this inaugural Landed blog post, we examine how teacher homeownership is central to improving America’s schools. We start by describing the core problem of housing access and unaffordability that many teachers face. Next, we show how this problem directly harms our students and schools. Finally, we explore how promoting teacher homeownership could materially improve outcomes for students, schools, and educators alike.

The core problem: homeownership is out of reach for most teachers

Escalating housing costs can be a challenge for anybody. Housing is one of the biggest costs in any budget, which makes housing security a critical factor in finding overall financial security. In expensive cities, high housing costs often put an enormous burden on essential professionals like teachers, directly undermining their financial security.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where we’ll focus our analysis, homeownership has become less attainable and educators have felt the crunch. According to a December 2015 survey conducted by the United Educators of San Francisco union, 77 percent of teachers and staff had a “difficult time” finding housing suitable to their needs. And 59 percent were concerned that the high cost of living in San Francisco would force them to leave the district. These concerns are distressing, but they are not surprising: growth in Bay Area housing prices has vastly outpaced growth in teacher salaries.

Sources: Case-Schiller Mid-Tier Home Price Index, California Department of Education

Across key Bay Area counties, average school district salaries have increased by about 13 percent since 2012, compared to a 72 percent overall increase in home prices.

As a result of the increasing gap between housing costs and teacher salaries, teachers are liable to see a huge chunk of their income going toward rent (way more than the 30 percent that’s become a rule of thumb) and face more financial instability. The problem has become especially acute in communities like San Francisco down to the heart of Silicon Valley, even as far south as Santa Cruz, where almost a quarter of staff have reported spending more than 50 percent of their salaries on rent.

The housing challenge that teachers face today is unprecedented. Educators who purchased homes or secured rent-controlled apartments decades ago did not encounter the extreme market conditions we are now witnessing. Today’s teachers increasingly are caught in a bind that makes homeownership unattainable: to protect themselves from rising rents, they need to save for a down payment on a home, but rents are increasing so quickly that they can’t save fast enough to amass that down payment.

While homeownership has moved further out of reach for teachers, it still remains a goal for many: 65 percent of San Francisco public school teachers say they are interested in buying a home in San Francisco.

When teachers can’t afford homeownership, it’s a big problem for students and their schools

Teachers aren’t the only ones who suffer from unattainable housing prices. Some of the most serious damage falls upon the broader community – and in particular schools and their students. The negative impacts fall into a few key categories: teacher shortages, teacher retention problems, and direct economic costs to schools. Each of these issues can cause major harm to the outcomes of students and the viability of their schools.

Source: United Educators of San Francisco Housing Survey

Teacher Shortages

When homeownership is unattainable for teachers, one of the most obvious consequences is a shortage of teachers at local schools. In San Francisco, these shortages have become so extreme that on the first day of the 2016-17 school year, the city’s school district had 38 teacher vacancies. Across the bay, in Oakland, a high school Spanish class recently went a whole year without a permanent teacher.

Left unaddressed, California’s teacher shortage problem could get worse, as the number of qualified teacher candidates has diminished in general: enrollment in California’s teacher training programs has dropped more than 70 percent over the last decade.

Teacher Retention

Not only are teachers’ housing challenges contributing to a general teacher shortage, the situation is also making it harder for schools to retain the teachers they do have.

Nationally, annual teacher turnover hovers around 17 percent, while turnover in urban school districts like Oakland Unified is about 20 percent. And teacher turnover within a classroom can strike at any time: one first-grade classroom in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood has already cycled through 12 different teachers this school year, as of February 2017.

Teachers’ housing-related economic strain can be a key driver of turnover. Many of them face unsustainably long commutes, take extra jobs to keep up with the rising cost of housing, and feel general anxiety about their financial and housing stability.

Direct Economic Costs to Schools

The impact of teacher shortages and retention goes beyond disrupting learning outcomes and student achievement. These problems also saddle schools with huge economic costs – which further undermine student achievement.

Replacement costs for teachers have been estimated at around $18,000 per outgoing teacher, which adds up to a national price tag of more than $7 billion a year. In California alone, our schools spend $455 million each year on the recruitment, hiring, and preparation of replacement teachers.

Sources: Learning Policy Institute, California State University Research

When teachers leave their schools (due to unaffordable housing or other factors), student achievement suffers. Studies have shown that students who experience higher teacher turnover score lower in English and math than their counterparts.

Furthermore, when schools face teacher turnover and shortages, they are forced to hire candidates who are not fully qualified to teach. From 2012 to 2015, the number of substandard permits and credentials issued in California increased by 63 percent - making up almost a third of all new credentials issued.

Envisioning a Solution

What if there were an effective way to help teachers achieve financial stability – in a way that reduces teacher shortages and turnover, and avoids the pernicious costs associated with those problems. One simple, yet radical idea is this: make homeownership easier for educators.

Expanding homeownership for educators helps create the type of education system that our kids deserve, where schools have consistent supply of high-quality teachers; where educators no longer have to commute long hours or dump over half of their paychecks into housing; where schools can put money toward real education outcomes rather than teacher replacement costs.

Consider the economic impact on a mid-sized California school district with 500 teachers and 9,000 students. If 5 percent of staff turn over annually due to housing instability, the district would need to spend $500,000 per year replacing teachers. By retaining these teachers instead, the school district could redirect $500,000 to resources that directly enhance student and teachers’ daily lives.

What Homeownership Could Accomplish

(Half a million dollars is arguably a conservative estimate of how much a mid-sized school could benefit from reducing teacher turnover. Our scenario doesn’t include the many indirect benefits of a steady teacher workforce, such as more engaged students and higher graduation rates.)

There’s no silver bullet in education. But having a dependable teacher workforce and more resources to spend on students are undeniably important goals. Teacher homeownership can help get us there; that’s why we’re putting our money on it.


Methodology

Our house price and educator salary calculations include data from the counties of SF, Marin, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa. In this analysis, teacher salaries are equally weighted across counties while home prices are not.

Calculations in the "What homeownership could accomplish" infographic are based on the following assumptions: Chromebooks cost about $275 each. High end playgrounds are estimated to cost $50,000 each. School psychologists, social workers and sports coordinators cost about $150,000 per year including salary, other compensation, and benefits.