The West Contra Costa Unified School District, serving some of the poorest neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area, can use every excellent teacher it’s able to recruit.
That is why the decision by Sarah La Due to pack up and leave the district, just two years after winning a Teaching Excellence Award, hurts.
But La Due, after five years in the district, is tired of living with two roommates and sharing a bathroom in order to afford housing. So this fall she will be teaching high school in Las Vegas instead of English at Fred T. Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito.
“I’m a 35-year-old professional woman and I shouldn’t have to live with roommates,” La Due said. “Why am I sacrificing so much to live in the Bay when there are other cities with culture and good food?”
La Due is not alone in her frustration.
An EdSource analysis of teacher salaries and rents reveals just how crushing California’s housing crisis has become for many teachers.
Teachers at the bottom of the salary scale working in coastal or metro areas of the state are being shut out of affordable housing. Many are spending more than 30 percent of their salary on rent, the federal cutoff for affordable housing, the EdSource analysis reveals:
- In nearly 40 percent of the 680 school districts that reported salary data to the state, first-year teachers did not earn enough to rent an affordable one-bedroom apartment.
- In 39 districts, first-year teachers faced the prospect of spending more than 50 percent of their income on a modest one-bedroom apartment.
- In more than a quarter of school districts the highest-paid teachers could not afford to rent a three-bedroom house or apartment.
- Teachers fare better in rural areas, where in nearly 90 percent of the districts, teachers earning an average salary could afford a two-bedroom apartment. But many of those areas have a shortage of rental housing, compounding the difficulty some rural districts face in attracting enough teachers.
Nowhere is the gap between teacher pay and housing costs wider than in the Bay Area. Teachers earning an average salary in nearly 90 percent of districts in the region did not earn enough to rent an affordable two-bedroom apartment. In 47 Bay Area school districts the highest-paid teachers only earned enough for an affordable one-bedroom apartment.
For districts already grappling with teacher shortages, high housing costs pose one more obstacle to hiring. As a result of declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs after the economic downturn and teacher attrition, many districts can’t find enough fully credentialed teachers to fill their classrooms, according to the “Getting Down to Facts II” education research project released last year.
California’s Teacher Housing Crunch
This special report reveals just how crushing California’s housing crisis has become for many teachers. Find out how teachers are struggling to pay the rent and how districts are building housing to attract and keep them. Check out interactive app to find out what teachers can afford to rent in your school district or view statewide maps showing where teachers can afford to live. Check out teacher salaries in districts across the state and read more on EdSource’s analysis and how it was done.
The EdSource analysis compared teacher salary data from the California Department of Education and fair-market rent data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Fair-market rent is the base price for a modest apartment in a given market, so those figures are likely to be lower than actual rents in high-cost communities.
La Due has been teaching for five years, starting as a Teach for America teacher in 2014. She earns $54,000 a year. To make extra cash to stretch her salary, she took on an extra class and drives for Lyft over the summer and during winter break.
“It’s still not enough,” she said.
Next school year, instead of paying $900 a month to rent a small bedroom and shared bathroom in Richmond, she can rent a two-bedroom apartment of her own for less than $1,000. She expects to make about the same salary.
The districts that pay enough for even their lowest-paid teachers to afford a two-bedroom apartment are almost entirely small districts in rural areas of the state. New teachers in Willows Unified in Glenn County and Tulelake Basin Joint Unified in Modoc County would pay about 16 percent of their salaries to rent a two-bedroom apartment.
California’s coastal communities, from the Bay Area to San Diego County, have the most expensive rents in the state, according to the EdSource analysis. First-year teachers in the Lompoc Unified School District, near Santa Barbara, spend 40 percent of their pay for a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, about $1,600. Farther down the coast, in the Carlsbad Unified School District, north of San Diego, a 10-year teacher has to spend about 41 percent of his or her salary to afford a three-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent of about $2,600 per month.
Elementary teacher Arnold Fenton, 28, spends about a quarter of his $69,000 salary on his portion of the rent for a two-bedroom apartment he shares with his partner and a roommate in the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego. The total rent is $2,140.
It’s less than he paid for a one-bedroom before, but the trade-off is a roommate and a 40-mile commute to Arroyo Vista Charter School in Chula Vista — where he teaches kindergarten — doubling his insurance and requiring him to buy a new car.
“I have to deal with children all day and sometimes I come home and have to get after him (the roommate) to do the dishes,” Fenton said. “There are days I grind my teeth and try not to lash out. Sometimes they bring friends over and I have just come back from work and I don’t want to deal with people who are rowdy.”
Fenton said he has thought of leaving the profession he has been in for six years in order to earn more money. Instead, he plans to earn his administrative credential and become a district or school administrator in five or 10 years.
The couple also have considered relocating. “We talk about Portland,” he said. “We talk about south Seattle. The cost is relatively cheaper than here.”
The situation is even more dire for new teachers, who have less money to spend on housing and other necessities.
Roxana De La O Cortez, 25, who teaches 5th grade at Oakland’s dual immersion Manzanita SEED Elementary School, moved back to her family’s two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Hayward in June.
She lives with her parents, her 23-year-old sister and 18-year-old brother. Her living quarters — a loft-style bed, bookcase and a portable clothing rack — take up half the living room. The bed has a built-in shoe rack and space underneath for the bins filled with De La O Cortez’s belongings.
“It is disappointing and it’s heartbreaking,” she said of the situation, which includes a 40-minute commute to work.
De La O Cortez had been living with another teacher in Oakland, but she couldn’t afford the $1,100 monthly rent, bills and $1,100 monthly tuition for a master’s degree on her then $47,000 salary, and still save for her dream of buying a house.
Things got financially worse for De La O Cortez in October when she lost her provisional internship permit and was bumped down to substitute pay — about $170 a day — after she failed one of the tests required to earn a teaching credential. Teachers on internship permits must pass all the required tests within a year of receiving their permit or it is revoked.
She’s hoping to fulfill her dream of home ownership in either Sacramento or Stockton in two or three years.
Housing advocate Sarah Chaffin, founder of Support Teacher Housing.org, would like to see Bay Area teachers living in the communities in which they teach, but it isn’t easy. Teachers usually earn too much to qualify for typical subsidized housing programs and don’t make enough to rent a median-priced apartment or buy a home, she said.
California residents caught in the middle — between low and high incomes — spend a substantial amount of their salaries on housing, according to a Legislative Analyst’s Office report on the governor’s 2019-20 budget, which includes proposals to improve the affordability of housing in the state. About 1 million households at or above the state’s median income — earning above $70,000 annually — are cost burdened, meaning they are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, the report states.
High housing costs impact everyone in the Bay Area, Chaffin said. “We need more moderate-income housing for everyone — teachers, social workers, dispatchers,” she said.
Joel Smith, 40, a high school ceramics teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, started hunting for a house two years ago. He didn’t have much of a down payment, so he needed to find something in the $250,000 range.
The median-priced house in Sacramento County and the city of West Sacramento in February of 2019 was $360,000, up from $260,000 in 2014, according to the Sacramento Association of Realtors. The increase in the cost of housing in Sacramento has been attributed, in part, to the number of Bay Area refugees moving to the city.
“All the houses we can afford are in dangerous neighborhoods,” Smith said. The family looked anyway. They discovered they had to bid for homes against numerous potential buyers, many offering well above the asking price.
Smith shares a $1,150-a-month, 800-square-foot one-bedroom duplex with his partner, Kaytie Hensley — a full-time college student — and their son. It’s tight quarters, but the family has little choice.
He’d like to save more money for a down payment to buy a house in a better neighborhood. As the sole family income and with student loan debt, Smith said he doesn’t feel like he can get ahead.
“It’s pretty hard to save money when you barely make it month to month,” Smith said.
Smith has been teaching for seven years and earns $53,000 a year. He supplements his income by teaching an extra period at the end of the school day, as well as summer school and Saturday school.
The high cost of housing in California has pushed many teachers, as well as residents in other professions, out of state in search of less-expensive housing, according to an EdSource analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Between 2013 and 2017 the Census Bureau estimates that 40,000 teachers left the state, although it is not clear that they left because of housing costs. That was an increase of 22 percent over the previous five-year period. In 2017 the most popular destination was Texas, followed by Oregon, Washington and Arizona.
Housing costs were definitely part of the equation as teachers staged strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, said Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association. “It is impacting everybody. The raises they were asking for were nowhere near going to meet their needs — to afford rent or put food on the table or pay their mortgage or anything like that.”
Despite her excitement at the new opportunity in Las Vegas, La Due, a native Californian, is sad to be leaving the state. She said almost every young teacher she knows has a short-term plan to move somewhere that costs less or pays more.
She doesn’t blame the school district. Teachers in the West Contra Costa Unified District received a big pay raise recently, but it was not enough to offset the high cost of housing, she said.
“It was a good raise and I don’t think the district could pay us any more,” she said. “They literally don’t have the funds.”