(Photo illustration by Shawntel Johnson; created in Procreate and Lightroom using assets from Unsplash, Pexel, and Pixabay)

The rent is too damn high. Should we build housing for L.A. teachers?

I Can See That is a solutions journalism podcast from AfroLA. We bring together two people with different points of view for a conversation. No debate. No manipulation. No coercion. Just real talk about why you believe what you believe with someone else in hopes you can see where they’re coming from, too.

Episode 1

Julietta Bisharyan has extensively reported on California’s problem with teacher turnover. It’s deeply connected to affordable housing. As educators grapple with low pay amid an affordable housing crisis, some school districts are taking matters into their own hands by constructing housing for teachers. But, is this the right move?

In our inaugural episode of I Can See That, two former educators discuss their viewpoints on teacher housing and whether or not they believe it is effective in recruiting and retaining teachers amidst Los Angeles’s housing crisis and teacher shortage. 

Nick Melvoin is a former teacher and current board member for Los Angeles Unified.

Aaron Ainsworth, a former educator, is now an education policy researcher at UC Irvine.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity. 
Click here to read full episode transcript.

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[music intro]

“Teachers like to work near where they live.”

“Most of the opposition that I’m getting is not as nuanced and as thoughtful as our conversation. when it’s like, ‘Give more salaries. It’s really like we don’t want housing.’”  

Hi everyone, I’m Julietta Bisharyan.

Welcome to I Can See That, a solutions journalism podcast from AfroLA. We bring together two people with different points of view for a conversation. No debate. No manipulation. No coercion. Just real talk about why you believe what you believe with someone else in hopes you can see where they’re coming from, too.

I’ve been reporting on California’s problem with teacher turnover for several months. It’s deeply connected to affordable housing. As educators grapple with low pay amid an affordable housing crisis, some school districts are taking matters into their own hands by constructing housing for teachers. But, is this the right move?

While proponents argue housing for teachers is a lifeline for educators, critics insist that teachers deserve higher pay rather than housing assistance. Moreover, they raise concerns about the potential complications of having your employer double as your landlord. We’ll explore these arguments and more in a solutions journalism-grounded conversation between two former educators with different points of view.

Nick Melvoin: So, I’m Nick Melvoin. I’m on the L.A. Unified Board of Education. I’m born and raised in L.A. and began my career as a teacher in Watts teaching middle- school English. 

Aaron Ainsworth:  My name is Aaron Ainsworth. I am a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine School of Education where I study education policy. Most of my work focuses on the K-12 education workforce, specifically around issues related to retention,  recruitment, effectiveness and generally ways to support the workforce. 

Why did you agree to participate in this conversation? 

Nick: So why did you decide to participate in today’s conversation? 

Aaron: I think, you know, as with many areas of policy, they’re so interconnected, right? And so I think for a long time folks have been saying education policy, like housing policy is education policy. And when we talk about that, it’s typically been from the lens of students’ rights and these persistent patterns of segregation in schools and issues related to sort of funding inequalities and things like that. But, the same can be said for teachers as well, right? 

Teaching is one of the professions that is really geographically-based. Every community in the United States needs teachers, and they can’t just pick up and move when they’re facing challenges to housing, right? You have to be in that area. And so for me, I think a key part of supporting the teacher workforce, it incorporates this piece around housing. 

And I was interested in participating in conversation, one, just, you know, to learn more about this issue. I think from a researcher perspective, we don’t have a lot of evidence about, you know, how effective this might be. But it’s something that I think is right for more research, even though I think some places are recognizing it more as a pressing issue. And I’m curious for you as well, Nick, if you what prompted you to be a part of this conversation today? 

Nick Yeah, well, this has been an issue, you know that I know we’ll get more into it, but that I first became passionate about when I was teaching when I was in Watts. And yet our workforce was coming from as far as two, three hours away. I remember our assistant principal once was snowed in one day, and I was like, “Snowed in? We’re in L.A.!” She lived up in kind of near San Bernardino and up in that way towards Big Bear and couldn’t get out of her home. And so to me, you know, I had this thought back then, “Well, this is crazy.” 

And so, you know, figuring out how we can recruit, retain, attract teachers has been really passionate for me. And also the district has a lot of underutilized land and so kind of connecting opportunity and need. But also I was curious, you know, when this was presented to me as a conversation, I was curious like, “Who is opposed to this idea?” And so candidly, I was also interested in just having a chat with someone who comes at this from a different perspective because, you know, it’s been an issue here where we’re kind of pushing against an open door. There’s a lot of bureaucracy, but it’s hard to find people, in our world at least, who are opposed to the idea of housing for teachers. So, I was curious to kind of understand different perspectives. 

Explain your views around housing for teachers.

Aaron: Why do you believe this is an important issue and what you know, do you think it can address maybe versus other alternatives? 

Nick: Yeah. So I think, you know, for me, I come at it from two ways. One, as we were just discussing, thinking about our workforce and having been a teacher and understanding how our salaries, even at L.A. Unified where we now have kind of historically-high salaries. Given our history, we still need more. And when we look at the cost of living in places like L.A., places like Las Vegas, places like New York City, you know, even on a veteran’s teacher salary, there’s just not enough. And more and more Americans, particularly our generation, I would say, you know, kind of who come into the workforce in the last 15, 20 years are spending a higher percentage of their income on housing. But there’s also need or opportunity on the other side, which is that L.A. Unified is one of the largest landowners in the county. 

Julietta: Nick is correct. LAUSD is the nation’s second-largest school system and owns 6,400 acres of land. In cities like L.A., homeownership costs take up 52% of a teacher’s salary. Since 2017, the rent for a one-bedroom home in the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. has increased by 22%. In contrast, starting teacher salaries have only increased by 15%.

Nick: For a variety of reasons, including demographic shifts and birth rates being low and enrollment and strategic priorities, we actually have a lot of underutilized land. In my district alone. We have some schools that have been closed for 40 years. That not only has been a waste of taxpayer resources, but is also a blight for the community. I mean, there are folks living across from a four acre fenced off, you know, blight. And so, you know, since I’ve been on the board, I thought, wait, we’ve got a need here, which is housing for our workforce and for our families. And we have an opportunity, which is land. Why aren’t we harmonizing this? And we actually have. We’ve done about three affordable housing projects for our employees and, you know, just shy of 200 units. And I just think there’s a lot more opportunity there. So, you know, we also regionally outside of L.A. Unified, we just have a huge housing crisis in Los Angeles, particularly around affordable housing.

Let’s briefly talk about the housing scene in L.A. Right now, if you’re eyeing a one-bedroom apartment, the median price is around $2,195. Now, imagine you’re a teacher dreaming of owning a home in L.A. To make a 20% down payment on the median-priced home (which is well over $900,000), it’ll take teachers with a bachelor’s degree over two decades of savings. Even after 20 years of experience as a teacher, the cost of homeownership would exceed 50% of a teacher’s salary in LAUSD.

Nick: One of the challenges I know housing developers have in places like L.A. is getting land, and titling it, going through the process. And we have, we have land. And so I’ve been trying to, you know, just connect that opportunity with the need. And I think we’re doing some really innovative stuff. So, you know, similarly, I mean, having been both a teacher and the student in public schools in California and now a researcher, you know, what are your views around teacher housing? 

Aaron: Yeah, it’s sort of interesting reading up at the beginning, you know, thinking someone who disagrees with housing, and I’ll say to be transparent with you, but I don’t, you know, oppose teacher housing as of yet. It’s sort of interesting when I tell people that I study this I get a lot of knee-jerk reactions like, ”Oh, just just pay the teachers more.” I think that’s sort of some of the responses. If teachers got paid what they were worth, in a living wage, that this wouldn’t be an issue. But I think, unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that, right? Certainly in some places across the United States, teachers are underpaid relative to other college-educated professionals. Recently, that pay penalty, relative to other college grads has hit 20%. But there’s variation in that.

Julietta: Pay penalty refers to the disparity in the compensation teachers receive compared to other professionals with similar levels of education and experience. Like Aaron said, research shows that public school teachers nationally make nearly 26% less in weekly earnings than similarly-credentialed college graduates in other fields. When you factor in benefits, such as health care, the total compensation penalty becomes 17%.

Aaron: The thing is that even in, you know, higher-salary places like parts of California, it’s not enough. Raising salaries probably wouldn’t be enough to fully address the issue related to obtaining affordable housing, right? And so in this context, districts have this really valuable asset, which is land, and that’s sort of their comparative advantage rate. Like it may not always be feasible to raise salaries, even if districts would want to. I don’t think there’s districts out there that don’t want to pay their teachers more if they could. But sometimes when it comes to raising salaries there’s certain funding sources that are limited to be spent on certain things. And so when it comes to developing affordable housing, districts can use an asset that they have, which is land. They don’t have to pay for it, and they can mix different bonds and other tax incentives, those things couldn’t have been used for salaries in the first place anyway. when it comes to this, I think it’s a highly localized issue. If you look across the United States, it’s not the case that teachers are struggling to afford housing in every community, although it is the case that certainly housing affordability has become more difficult in communities across the U.S. There’s survey evidence out there about, what do teachers think about housing incentives? Only about 11% in a national sample suggests that that would help keep them in teaching or or survey evidence for teachers that have left teaching. Only 25% or so say that housing incentives would bring them back. But again, I think it’s important to know that those are not national samples, and this is a really highly localized issue. And so I think it’s important to know the context.

Nick: And one of the concerns I’ve heard some people say is, “Well, I don’t want my employer to be my landlord.”  At least for L.A. Unified, we are not the landlord. We have enough to do running schools. So what we have done in the three projects we’ve done, and that we’re going to do going forward, is we’ve leased the land to a developer for almost nothing. And then in exchange for that lease as part of that contract, they have to build housing that is affordable for our workforce. And then the landlord is one of these developers, just like if you’re in a normal apartment building. So I just want to clarify that, too, because we were like, “I don’t want my principal to be the one who’s also getting my rent check.” No, that’s not how it works. We are just the facilitator of the land. If we are successful in, let’s say, getting these next 2,000 units done, where do you see the long-term effects of this for teachers and also school districts? 

What are the long-term effects of housing for teachers, for teachers and school districts?

Aaron: One thing that we do know is that teachers are responsive to incentive, salary-based or financial incentives and that they can move the needle on recruitment. So places that offer financial incentives are able to attract teachers and these incentives do keep teachers in their districts, in their schools. And so in that regard, if, L.A. Unified is able and other places are able to build a substantial share of units, this can bring people in, and particularly if it reduces the turnover rate of novice teachers. So about 44% of teachers leave within the first five years. And so it really is a crisis of trying to keep particularly early-career teachers into the profession. And so creating a stable housing situation through these financial incentives could work. 

But one thing we know about the financial incentives is that once they go away, they are no longer effective, which sort of makes sense. And this comes from studies of bonus programs or loan forgiveness programs, things like that. So when those benefits go away, the teachers, the retention and the recruitment benefits also go away. And so there could be a saturation point. Once units are filled, you may lose that advantage that was once had. And even it could be the case, that a lot of these units have a cap of how many years you can spend on them. And so if they move, if they’re no longer eligible for that incentive and still struggling to afford housing, it may not keep them there. So I think there are definitely challenges and possibilities.

Nick: I think it’s interesting, especially thinking about the benefit of these incentives only lasting as long as the incentives last. One of the things we’ve been exploring is the different types of housing that we can do for different teachers at different stages of their careers. And so, for example, when I have four or five acres out in the west Valley, in my mind I’m thinking townhomes, like maybe affordable townhouses. In that case, like single-family type stuff, with a backyard versus when I have three- quarters of an acre in Hollywood. Maybe we’re talking about one-bedroom, two-bedroom apartments for teachers. I also want to create a program that is more inclusive. And we’re not just thinking about that 22-year-old teachers coming out of college. We’re also thinking about, maybe the teacher that is trying to start a family. I also think it’s an opportunity to think about some of the, inclusive living models, but also benefits to our workforce. 

Putting a daycare, putting a child care facility in one of these, there’s a few of these co-living-type spaces that are opening up in L.A. And I’ve met with some of those developers. For our teachers who are, probably in the earlier stages of their careers, too, they like a model that’s more like a dorm where you’re going to have some collaboration and. And so we’re going to be surveying our workforce to see what they want. But in my head, when I look at some of these properties, I think, “Oh, a child care [facility] on the first floor. That really is connected with our mission as a school district. And then three or four stories on top of that could have multiple benefits. We’re also trying to think about, to your point, making sure that this incentive lasts and really being innovative with that as well. 

One of the pushbacks I think people might bring up is that there are a lot of people who need housing, including our families. Is this just giving housing to a select group that, arguably, is still making more money than a lot of our bus drivers, our cafeteria managers, the parents of our kids, like, are they more deserving, quote unquote, of housing than our teachers? And how should districts think about that balance? 

How should districts balance providing staff housing for teachers versus classified staff who make less and may be considered more deserving of housing?

Aaron: It’s an interesting question, and it’s difficult because the housing affordability issue affects everyone. Maybe excluding sort of higher-income folks, but it is such an all-encompassing issue. I think one thing that people talk about is that there is a sort of “missing middle.” That there are established programs, affordable housing programs for folks that make under 80% of the average median income or below 50%. And there’s sort of a sliding scale. But this group of folks who are making slightly above that median, like teachers, they still struggle to afford housing. They just are not maybe struggling as much as some other folks are. 

And so I think what’s difficult about this issue and when folks say the district shouldn’t be involved in this, we should have other government agencies trying to solve this challenge related to housing supply. And the one challenge with that for districts is that, once that takes place, the focus may be not on educators. There’s so many different stakeholders. Like what about nurses or firefighters or other sort of essential workers? And some districts if they’re just relying on outside, government organizations or other nonprofit developers that may miss their group.

You said earlier one of the benefits is that districts have the land. In California in particular, the Teacher Housing Act allows districts to build affordable housing on their land and restrict it to their employees. But the caveat is it has to be on district land. And so you sort of lose out on those benefits. And,  just another thing to point out, too, in places where there is a lack of housing supply. Historically-speaking, teacher housing has been in rural areas where there have not been… It’s not that there’s not affordable housing, it’s that there is not housing generally. And so they build housing. This is common in places like, Native American reservations. It’s really common because there is just not housing supply. 

Another sector, like the national and state parks. We don’t say, “Oh, these park rangers who just find a place to live in this national park.” No, those places provide that housing to them, right, because we understand that they need to be in that area. And so it is targeted. It is focused. And so I think that’s something, you know, to consider. What are the possibilities, and can you solve the problem if you’re not being targeted about it? And so I think districts can be thinking about that. What do you think, Nick, in that regard? 

Nick: No, I agree. And it’s funny, too, because I think districts often can’t win because on one hand, you said it well there with the national park example. But on the other hand, it’s like this is not a school district problem to solve on our own. School districts have had to take more and more to account for the failures of other governmental actors. We serve three meals a day. We provide vision screening and oral health screening. We provide internet service for most of our families. And so I say that because it’s something that I lean into because it’s important. It really is an abdication of the responsibility of the city, the county, the state, the federal government to provide housing. I think we would agree it is a universal right. 

I resent some of the criticism because I’m like, “We’re doing this because you all haven’t.” If you made sure that housing was affordable for our workforce and, outside of our [L.A. Unified] providing it, we wouldn’t have to do this.” I appreciate you mentioned the missing middle because that has been one of the things we’ve worked out at the state level. When we did these initially, our first three projects have been for our classified employees—bus drivers, cafeteria workers, special ed aides—because teachers were making too much to qualify for those credits, but making not enough to live in the boundaries of L.A. Unified. We have worked in the state legislature to increase that. And again, there is no shortage of need. I don’t have a great counterargument for: “Why don’t you focus on bus drivers? Why not nurses, Why not psychiatric social workers?” We should do it for everyone. We just, despite having the land, we don’t have enough. 

And so we’re trying to mix and really see what works. I think we have had trouble attracting nurses and psychiatric social workers. And so we’re not we’re not going to limit these projects to just teachers necessarily. We’re going to be looking at other professionals that are having difficulty [finding housing]. So it seems like we’re on the same page there. 

A question for you is dealing with folks who maybe disagree with your perspective on this issue. What do you hope that they would take away from our conversation and really your vantage point on the issue? 

What do you hope someone who disagrees with your perspective on this issue understands about you and where you’re coming from? 

Aaron: It’s not always as simple as just raising teacher salaries. The financing of schools is a really complicated endeavor. And so, It’s not always necessarily within the school district. And we’re thinking of school districts as actors. Some school districts don’t have the ability to just raise the salaries. They’re dependent on state funding. And so to that regard, if you want to raise teacher salaries, you probably have to go to a lot of the statehouses in many places across the U.S. to get that done. And that is still a laudable goal. 

But in terms of thinking what districts can do, it’s not always that straightforward. And I think understanding that the country has not been building enough housing to keep up with demand, and that is a broader government failure and that it might take lots of entities working on this and different ways to make progress on it. And so I think schools don’t necessarily want to be in this position. If they didn’t have to focus on this, I don’t think they would. But they feel compelled to. And so understanding that, lots of people might be involved in the solution to the housing affordability issue. 

What about you, Nick? What do you wish people who maybe disagree with you about this, what would you hope they would understand or what point of view would like them to consider? 

Nick: I think you said it very well, which is that at school districts, speaking as a policymaker for the second largest one in the country, don’t necessarily want this responsibility, but feel like we need to take it on. And so, like the other examples I mentioned, like three meals a day and embedding lawyers in communities at schools to help families with eviction protection and wage theft and immigration, by providing computers and hotspots. It’s not like school districts say, “Oh, we’re teaching kids to read so well, we should go and do these other things.” We just realized that in order to teach kids to read well, you need these other things as part of it. 

There’s been a real abdication, like you mentioned, in this country across the board of building housing stock. I’m not saying there are not other good solutions to this, both from what your point is around raising teacher salaries, but also with our land. I meet with advocates who say, “Don’t build housing, build a park.” Great, let’s do both. Don’t build housing, sell the land and make the $20 million and then put that into the school district. It’s not that there is a orthodoxy of solutions like, “Oh, we can only do this.” I want to do a bunch of it. It’s just every time I try to balance the opportunity here with the land and the need when it comes to our workforce and just regionally, the housing crisis. You can’t walk in L.A. without the homeless challenge confronting you. We also know a great way to prevent homelessness is to keep people in their homes, of course. I keep coming back to the way to harmonize those two things. But that doesn’t mean that there are other needs that we can’t be exploring, like parks and open space, community centers or child care. And I think we’re here for all of it. And, we’re just trying to kind of thread the needle to the best of our ability. 

[music outro]

Julietta: And, that’s our conversation. Although Nick and Aaron’s views aren’t exactly on opposite sides of the debate, their conversation reveals how nuanced discussions around teacher housing can be. And, because research on the effectiveness of staff housing is limited, we don’t know if it is a worthwhile solution to retain and recruit  educators in the long run. Thanks for listening. 

This conversation was facilitated by Julietta Bisharyan (oh, that’s me!) and AfroLA executive director Dana Amihere. This episode of I Can See That was edited and produced by yours truly. Original music composed by Cliff Brown.

Check out our other reporting around teacher turnover in California and more great solutions journalism on AfroLA’s website at afro – L – A – news – dot – org – slash – solutions.

[music fades]

Teacher housing, past and present

Despite the lack of data, teacher housing is not a new idea. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of “teacherages,” dedicated housing for educators, as Western communities rapidly expanded. Initially residing with local families, teachers faced challenges that led schools and districts to construct residences on school grounds. By 1922, a nationwide survey of county superintendents revealed over 3,000 teacherages across the county. Much of this housing was for Indigenous teachers living on reservations. There are nearly 600 teacher housing units in New Mexico, but the overall landscape of such developments across the U.S. is largely unknown.

As of 2022, the pay disparity for teachers compared to similarly educated professionals is pronounced. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the 25% pay gap is the highest it’s ever been since 1980. Average teacher salaries in the U.S. have also stagnated the past three decades. The housing crisis exacerbates these challenges, with rent and home prices surging in the largest metropolitan areas. New teachers, particularly in cities like San Francisco and L.A., face the daunting task of allocating a significant portion of their income to secure housing. The result? The prospect of home ownership is bleak.

The impact of housing affordability on educators of color is particularly concerning. Black teachers have the lowest retention rate and represent a disproportionate share of those burdened by rent. Latine teachers, who comprise a more significant portion of the teacher workforce, are also burdened by rent costs. The racial wealth disparities stemming from historical discriminatory housing practices, like redlining, compound home ownership-related challenges.

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More from our series on teacher turnover: 

A recent study based on data from San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) provides compelling evidence that links housing challenges to teacher turnover and attitudes towards teaching. The research revealed that 48% teachers surveyed in 2016 experienced frequent anxiety about their economic circumstances. Specifically, 27% of renting teachers struggled to cover their monthly housing costs. 

The study demonstrated a correlation between housing difficulties, teachers’ attitudes toward their job. Teachers challenged by finding affordable housing were less positive about  the teaching profession, had higher rates of absenteeism and an increased likelihood of leaving the district. Notably, those concerned about housing were 8 percentage points more likely to experience turnover, with a 20% departure rate compared to 12% for their counterparts.


Reporter, host & editor: Julietta Bisharyan

Producers: Julietta Bisharyan and Dana Amihere

Original music: Cliff Brown

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