by Dr. Robert Luebke
Senior Fellow, Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Teachers and school officials continually cite the availability of affordable housing as a major factor in determining the success of school districts’ efforts to recruit and retain teachers. In recent years, the number of bills to allow school districts to provide housing for teachers or staff has been increasing. Currently, five school districts in North Carolina (Asheville City, Dare County, Buncombe County, Hoke County, and Hertford County) provide housing for teachers.
A recent article on the education web site EdNC recently brought even more attention to this issue when it highlighted efforts by the Office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction to move the issue.
The article also highlighted two brothers, both teachers for Buncombe County Schools, who share a two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,100-square-foot apartment in the Williams-Baldwin Teacher Campus, teacher housing provided by the Asheville City and Buncombe County districts. The brothers also split $950 in rent.
I sympathize with teachers — as well as millions of other Americans — who are struggling with the escalating cost of housing.
EdNC deserves credit for highlighting a problem. However, the article has some conspicuous omissions.
The EdNC article states:
Julie Pittman special advisor to the state superintendent for teacher engagement, says “We know that essential educator housing is important for teachers for recruitment and retention.”
That’s a nice statement, but is it true? While it may sound good to offer housing perks for teachers, unfortunately there is little evidence that such programs improve recruitment or retention or make for good public policy. No teacher housing programs have been rigorously evaluated to determine whether they are doing what they are supposed to do.
We’re led to believe by the article that districts that provide housing do a better job of addressing recruitment and retention issues than those who don’t. Do they? Since school districts seldom reveal the costs of construction, maintenance of the cost of program administration, and marketing, it is difficult to assess the true or net benefits of the program.
We’re often told many teachers are unable to afford housing. The EdNC article highlights two units located in Buncombe County that have 24 two-bedroom units. That’s space for 48 teachers. The article tells us the space is divided between Buncombe County Schools and Asheville City Schools. If the space is divided equally, each system would get slots for 24 teachers.
According to the Statistical Profile of North Carolina Public Schools, Buncombe County Schools has 1,577 teachers, and Asheville City Schools have 345. If that’s the case, the affordable housing program under discussion would serve only 1.5% of teachers in Buncombe County and at most about 7% of teachers in Asheville City Schools. Can we justifiably say a program is successfully addressing a problem when the numbers are this small?
But those small numbers are telling us something else. According to the web site Rentdata.org, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Asheville in 2021 was $1,179. It’s safe to assume that most affordable housing programs are pitched towards the needs of the youngest teachers, those on the lower end of the salary scale.
How widespread is the problem? Let’s run some numbers. Starting salary for a teacher on a 10-month schedule is $35,460. We must also include the local salary supplement. Buncombe County provides teachers a generous local salary supplement of $8,183. According to the North Carolina Statistical Profile, 96% of teachers in Buncombe County receive a salary supplement. Adding the local salary supplement to the teacher’s starting salary gives us a yearly salary of $43,643 for starting teachers in Buncombe County. Since the majority of teachers are paid on a 10-month schedule, that means a typical starting teacher would have a gross income — before taxes — of $4,364/month over the course of those ten months.
Financial experts recommend that renters spend no more than 30 percent of gross monthly take-home income on rent. Using that formula suggests that starting teachers in Buncombe County, making an average supplement, can spend up to $1,309 on rent during the ten months in which they are getting paid, which is more than the $1,179 median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment.
Some may say a more realistic figure is to divide the salary among twelve months. In this case, that would produce a monthly salary of $3,636, and provide $1,091 for rent. That figure is below the monthly median rent of $1,179, by $88. It’s hard to make a hardship argument when the figures are so close and when the majority of teachers earn additional income in summer to cover those months.
These figures, coupled with the realization the figures represent the lowest-paid teachers, may give one pause about the scope of the problem.
While it may sound good to offer housing perks for teachers, unfortunately there is little evidence that such programs improve recruitment or retention or make for good public policy. No teacher housing programs have been rigorously evaluated to determine whether they are doing what they are supposed to do.
There are other, better ways to address this issue. Let’s discuss both a short-term and long-term solution. If school districts are concerned about affordable housing for teachers, then instead of incurring costs to buy land, construct apartments, and provide maintenance and program administration, why not increase teacher pay? It’s direct, simpler, and keeps schools out of the landlord business, which they have no business getting into.
Finally, Economics 101 suggests that soaring prices for any commodity (e.g., housing) are a result of either a shortage of supply, rising demand, or some combination of the two. If the price of housing is out of reach for many, instead of focusing on helping teachers pay higher prices, why not focus on solutions to increase the stock of housing for everyone? It’s the only way to bring long-term change to the housing market.
Unfortunately, cities like Asheville, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh have spun out a web of policies that have made it difficult for developers to meet the growing need for housing. There are ways to bring more and varied housing options to an area. For example, decrease the emphasis on single-family housing and allow for more multifamily housing units to meet the demand for housing among low- and moderate-income people. Prohibitions against adding accessory dwelling units and converting garages into living spaces keep people from using their existing property to provide new living arrangements for family or potential renters. Any long-term solution must also address the regulatory problem. There are countless stories about how oppressive environmental, zoning, and building regulations make it difficult for developers to want to build houses. It’s not an economically attractive proposition for many developers. Lifting restrictive zoning regulations such as minimum lot sizes and allowing land to be subdivided or more houses to be built on current land can provide more incentives to builders to start building.
Yes, housing is becoming more expensive for middle-income earners like teachers. Current programs to aid teachers are small in scope, fail to convey the true costs of the program, and lack any substantive research showing such efforts actually work. A better way to improve the housing crisis for teachers in the short term would be for local school districts to direct funds toward improving teacher pay and resist mission creep. Many voices are clamoring for schools to get into the landlord business. They should be resisted. Schools have no business getting into the landlord business.
In the long term, the best way would be to adopt zoning and regulatory reforms that would encourage development and better use of existing property to increase the stock of housing and housing options. Only then will teachers and others enjoy more freedom to live where they want.