Amy DeFusco had wanted to buy a house.
When the 36-year-old moved to metro Denver in 2015, she and her husband rented an apartment with her brother. The arrangement, she thought, would be temporary.
Seven years later, DeFusco and her husband no longer live with her brother and have moved from an apartment to a house. But they’re still renting.
“My husband and I have given up” on buying a home, said DeFusco, an early-childhood educator at Denver Public Schools.
As housing costs continue to rise, Denver educators say buying a home is increasingly out of their reach. Even renting, they said, is becoming harder as prices rise and inflation persists. Some said they are considering moving to other states — or already have left.
For districts, the housing crisis is causing staffing shortages, and in places like Denver, it’s one of the drivers of low enrollment in schools.
Colorado school districts have increased educator wages, but the raises haven’t kept pace with rising housing costs. Fewer than 20% of homes in the state are at a price that is affordable for teachers earning the average salary in their district, according to a 2022 report by the nonprofit Keystone Policy Center.
Teachers living along the Front Range and in mountain towns especially “face acute affordability constraints,” according to the report.
Home prices increased by about 20% from 2020 to 2021, according to the Keystone report. The housing market cooled in 2022, with the median price of a single-family home sold in metro Denver in December at $600,000, just slightly higher than the price the previous year. The median price of condos and townhomes increased by 5.74% last year to $405,000.
The average salary for public school teachers in Colorado was below $60,000 a year during the 2020-21 academic year, placing the state 26th in the nation for educator pay, according to a 2022 report by the National Education Association.
“Many educators talk about the inability to work and live in the communities where they teach,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association. “That’s pretty common all across the state.”
One teacher, Katie McOwen, left Denver this past summer because she said it was no longer possible for her to stay. She taught sixth grade at Place Bridge Academy until she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.
When she lived in Denver, the 39-year-old paid about $1,350 a month in rent and utilities for a one-bedroom apartment and earned about $60,000 a year.
McOwen said she lived within her financial means, rarely dining out and even using an antenna on her TV. But she also had student loans to repay.
When she moved, McOwen’s salary not only increased by about $10,000 but her rent dropped to $925 a month for a bedroom in a house she rents with roommates.
McOwen said she laughed when she heard what the rent would be for her new place. She said she now feels that she is in a better position to pay off debt and save to purchase a home.
“I love Denver but I can’t be living in an apartment (on a) month-to-month paycheck for the rest of my life,” McOwen said. “So I had to make that hard decision. I didn’t like leaving my school and my students.”
“There’s just so much uncertainty”
For school districts, the impacts of the housing crisis are twofold. When educators, including teachers, paraprofessionals and substitutes, can’t afford to live in or near their district, it causes staffing shortages. But families are also feeling the crunch, and as they leave Denver, or even move to different neighborhoods, schools see fewer students to enroll.
During the pandemic, districts have faced widespread staffing shortages, which led some to temporarily cancel classes. At DPS, those shortages aren’t as severe as the last school year, but they still persist. This means there is less time for teachers to receive professional development and educators have to cover classes for their coworkers, said Cesar Cedillo, chief of schools for DPS.
“We are getting hit hard on multiple levels,” he said.
DPS has lost more than 6,400 elementary students since 2014 and expects enrollment to decline for the foreseeable future.
As students leave, so does the money DPS receives from state and local governments to teach them. Now, the district is facing a $23.5 million budget deficit next year and has considered closing schools to address the looming financial crisis.
Denver’s Board of Education has tabled the school-closure discussion for now, but individual schools already are reducing staffing in their buildings because of low enrollment — leaving teachers to wonder how long they’ll have jobs.
“Even schools that don’t end up closing, if student numbers come in low at a school, then we could see school staff cut at buildings — and we have (seen cuts) for the last two years at the school where I work,” said Alex Nelson, a fourth-grade teacher at Bryant-Webster Dual Language School.
So even when a teacher has been able to purchase a house, they are still facing uncertainty regarding their job security, he said.
“I believe I have a job for a few years,” he said. “I like where I work. I think we have a really good school. There’s just so much uncertainty.”
Aimee Soukup taught at Bryant-Webster, but because of low enrollment, the school didn’t have enough students to support having two fifth grade classes anymore. So she left the school and now teaches fourth-grade math and science at Gust Elementary as of August.
The 32-year-old is also directly affected by high housing costs. Until this year, she worked a second job in a restaurant to make ends meet.
Soukup and her partner want to buy a home but have struggled to find one in their price range, even with two incomes.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had to look elsewhere,” she said. “We’d love to stay in Colorado. As of now, we’re currently looking at options out of state.”
“We need to do far more to address this issue”
When school started in the fall, several districts, including DPS and Jeffco Public Schools, gave employees raises. But as wages rose so did other costs, such as health insurance, Baca-Oehlert said.
“The housing issue — it’s massive and we need to do far more to address this issue,” said Van Schoales, senior policy director at Keystone Policy Center. “And at the same time work on teacher salaries.”
Public school teachers in Colorado made on average $58,183 during the 2020-21 academic year, which is less than the national average salary of $65,293, according to the National Education Association’s report.
DPS teachers received a 6% cost-of-living raise this year, which raised the lowest salary a teacher can make to $50,130 and topped the salary scale at $109,022 for educators with at least two decades of experience and a doctorate.
DPS, the state’s largest district, also agreed to raise the minimum wage for paraprofessionals, who provide support in classrooms, from $15.87 per hour to $20 per hour. The district will also bump the minimum wage for all employees to $20 per hour by the 2024-25 academic year.
At Jeffco Public Schools, educators received what the local teachers union estimated was about a 9% increase in pay as the state’s second-largest district set a new salary range of $50,000 to more than $100,000.
In the neighboring Douglas County School District, the Board of Education asked voters to approve a $60 million mill levy override so that it could give educators raises to help schools retain and recruit employees. The measure, which would have funded raises in 2023, failed to garner enough votes in November.
“When you live paycheck to paycheck, medical bills or car emergencies can set up back really quick, too,” said McOwen, the teacher who moved to Ohio. “It’s a conversation about paying teachers living wages and making housing more affordable so teachers can live in their school communities.”
School district officials, policy experts and teacher unions say bigger policy decisions are needed to address the housing situation.
“A solution to this is really to work with the city and county of Denver to see how we can be creative with teacher housing,” said DPS’s Cedillo.
Years ago, the district worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to make buying a house more accessible to teachers by lowering the cost of mortgages, he said.
Another example given by Schoales is for school districts to build affordable housing on land they already own for their employees.
But Baca-Oehlert, with the state teachers union, said educators need to be part of these discussions because while there has been talk about building housing for teachers, she has heard from people who say they don’t want to live in a dorm-like complex.
They want to own a home, Baca-Oehlert said.
Owning a home provides a person with financial security and enables them to build wealth, according to the Keystone report.
But homeownership is still a dream for educators, such as DeFusco, the early childhood educator.
She and her husband, who is a barber, pay $2,300 per month in rent, excluding utilities, and they were told by their landlord to expect the cost to increase by $50 per year for the foreseeable future, she said.
“The way it’s going right now it feels like we’re going to be priced out of our neighborhood even rent-wise very soon,” DeFusco said.
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