California's housing affordability crisis looms over the state's problems with teachers

Key Points
  • California's housing affordability crisis has contributed to the challenge of school districts attracting and retaining teachers, but some are fighting back with special educator housing.
  • This affordability problem is especially acute in the Los Angeles area as well as cities ringing the San Francisco Bay.
  • It comes as teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District this week strike for a variety of demands, including higher pay.
Marua Corona, center, a High School teacher at The Accelerated Schools, a community of public charter schools in South Los Angeles joins fellow teachers as they picket outside the school on second day of the Los Angeles school teachers strike on January 15, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Al Seib | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

California's housing affordability crisis has made it more difficult for school districts to attract and retain teachers, a large reflection of a problem affecting education systems across the country.

The challenge of luring and keeping teachers is notoriously a problem for the San Francisco Bay Area, where housing prices are among the highest in the nation. But it's become a difficult issue in other areas of the state, as well, and it has led to some districts fighting back with affordable-housing measures and other relief efforts.

"The main impacts have been in the Bay Area first and now we're seeing it more and more in Los Angeles with rising rents," said Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, a 325,000-member union. "A one-bedroom apartment is $2,000 to $3,000, that's pretty much a teacher's take-home pay for the month (beginning teachers or even those in the middle part of their career)."

The challenges facing school districts in California were highlighted this week when thousands of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District went on strike over a variety of issues, including pay. In Northern California, teachers at several schools in the Oakland Unified School District also are reported to be planning a one-day walkout Friday and asking for more pay.

Late Wednesday, the union representing the picketing Los Angeles teachers announced it would return to the bargaining table Thursday. This is the first teachers strike in 30 years in the second-largest school district in the nation. It follows teacher walkouts in at least five other states in the past year.

The strike comes amid a national teacher shortage and as California is losing teachers to other states, such as Texas, where the cost of living is lower. The teacher shortages are especially being felt in math, science and special education.

Housing affordability has been especially tough for teachers in the San Francisco region.

"In the Bay Area, the cost of living is so expensive that it's proving more and more difficult to attract teachers to live here," said Matthew Duffy, superintendent of West Contra Costa Unified School District in the city of Richmond. "If you want to live in any of the surrounding cities to us — Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco — it's virtually impossible on a teacher's salary."

According to Duffy, for the past five years the East Bay district has been losing almost 20 percent of its teachers each year — a trend he blames on affordability. That is higher than the national average of 10 percent.

Similarly, other nearby Northern California communities also face low retention rates for teachers, including Oakland Unified. It has suffered from a nearly 19 percent teacher attrition rate for at least a decade and the constant threat of budget cuts haven't helped.

Dwindling resources

The labor unrest by teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland public schools highlights the issue of dwindling resources in K-12 education.

"No matter how much money we get, we always get less than what we were promised, especially on the federal level," said Emma Turner, president of the California School Boards Association, a group representing more than 1,000 California school districts and county offices of education.

The union for Los Angeles teachers is asking for higher pay in a district where the starting annual salary of teachers is $50,368, according to LAUSD. That is barely enough after taxes to cover the average Los Angeles rent of $2,265 per month, based on RentCafe data.

"In every part of California, housing is unaffordable for many people," said Sara Kimberlin, senior policy analyst at the California Budget & Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank based in Sacramento. "A lot of that really has to do with the fact that if you look at median rents, they have risen about 3 times as much as median annual wages over recent years. This is a problem facing all kinds of employers and certainly public-sector employees."

The average salary paid in 2017-18 for teachers in the LA Unified district was under $75,000 per year, according to the state Department of Education. The agency data show the beginning annual salary of teachers in Oakland public schools is nearly $47,000 and the average about $63,000.

Teachers in the Oakland public schools have been working for more than a year without a contract. The Bay Area district has announced plans to reduce spending over the next two years and to close a number of schools.

"The cost of housing is a key driver of whether teachers' compensation is going to be adequate to meet their needs," said Tara Kini, director of state policy for the Learning Policy Institute, a national research and policy organization focused on education.

Importantly, the Los Angeles teachers strike also is about educators seeking smaller classroom sizes and more support staff, such as counselors, librarians and nurses.

The union, United Teachers Los Angeles, last week rejected as "woefully inadequate" LAUSD's offer, which included a 6 percent pay raise and nearly 1,200 extra staff for only one year. The union wants a 6.5 percent pay increase and to have it retroactive to last year.

"This represents the best we can do, recognizing that it is our obligation to provide as much resources as possible to support our students in each and every one of our schools," Austin Beutner, LAUSD's superintendent, told reporters Friday.

The Los Angeles strike underscores challenges facing public school education in California, which is the fifth-largest economy in the world but ranks 40th among U.S. states in terms of per-pupil spending, according to the National Education Association. California's K-12 schools serve nearly 6 million students, or about 12 percent of the total pupil population nationally.

"If we value education and we want to continue the economic growth that we are experiencing here in California it's vital that we have a strong public education system," said Heins, the CTA president.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a new state budget last week that includes about $2 billion for early childhood programs as well as money to spur more affordable housing in the state. Overall, it includes $60.5 billion in spending for kindergarten through grade 12 education, or about 30 percent of his $209 billion total budget.

However, critics say the state has failed to keep up when it comes to public education spending and now is paying the price with large classroom sizes. The increase in classroom sizes coincides with a sharp decline in the number of teachers credentialed through state colleges in the past decade.

California distributes its school funding in a way that doesn't take into account differences in regional labor markets. As a result, Kini, of the Learning Policy Institute, said that makes it harder for teachers in some markets to be able to afford the cost of housing.

The monthly rent of apartments in the Bay Area is so high that there have been reports in recent years of teacher homelessness.

Efforts to fight back

Still, some districts are fighting back with special educator housing and partnerships that seek to keep them competitive.

In response to sky-high housing costs, the San Francisco Unified School District last year moved forward on building its first affordable teacher housing development. The educator housing includes more than 100 apartments and costs more than $40 million.

In addition, the Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County is building special housing for district teachers and staff. A bond measure approved by voters in June allows the district to borrow up to $33 million for the project.

The West Contra Costa district also has several initiatives to help school employees with affordable housing, including a partnership with Landed, a startup that provides a down payment to teachers and then makes its money when the house is sold or refinanced. The school district also teamed up with a Richmond city program that refurbishes blighted houses and sells them at below-market rates.

Duffy, the West Contra Costa school superintendent, said the key is figuring out where to find more education funding in general.

"I love supporting the work of teacher housing and the partnerships we're creating, but at the end of the day I am not a housing developer," he said. "My core business is teaching and learning and what happens inside the classrooms."