From an old convent to rooms for rent, schools are desperate to find affordable housing for struggling staff

Shanika Whiten has devoted over two decades to working for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But recent soaring inflation, combined with the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, have put the 42-year-old special education assistant — and countless teachers and school staff across the US — under immense pressure as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

Whiten is among the lucky ones who have received help to secure affordable housing, but she feels for those who are not so fortunate.

“It’s sad to live the way we are because of inflation,” said Whiten. “And everything is going up except your paycheck. Your paycheck isn’t going up so it’s like, ‘how am I going to continue to survive?'”

In a 2020 survey, the National Education Association found that 16% of educators are having trouble making rent or mortgage payments, up from 12% before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The association stresses the need for greater pay increases, in addition to more affordable housing options and other benefits.

The pandemic exacerbated educators’ challenging working conditions, leaving school systems across the country struggling to retain teaching talent and forcing some to double as both employers and landlords.

Community steps up

Residents of one affluent suburb in California’s Silicon Valley are answering their local school district’s call for help by offering up empty rooms in their homes for rent.

In late August, the Milpitas Unified School District near San Jose sent out a notice asking members of the community to step up if they “have a room for rent at your home and would like to share the housing opportunity with our Milpitas Unified School District educators.”

School officials told CNN that, as of Tuesday, 66 residents in the city of around 75,000 had offered rooms or spare homes to rent out to school staff.

The school district said it’s lost seven teachers since the last school year “because of the cost of living in Santa Clara County and the (San Francisco) Bay Area.” Those educators moved to more affordable communities, according to the school district.

It’s a common burden felt by teachers and other school employees nationwide. On average, monthly rents in the US have nearly doubled in the past 10 years, rising from about $700 a month in 2012 to more than $1,300 in 2022. The cost of living has surged to roughly six times the rate it was a decade ago.

“There’s been months where I would worry about ‘am I going to be able to pay rent this month?”’ Whiten said.

Three years ago her life changed drastically. Whiten was informed that her application to a then-new housing complex, Norwood Learning Village, was approved. The affordable housing development was a joint venture between the Los Angeles school district and TSA Housing.

“A lot of people, they almost feel in disbelief because of, not only the price that they’re getting the unit for but the quality of the housing here,” said Sam Chang, manager of Norwood Learning Village and the husband of a teacher.

Whiten, a single mom who has multiple sclerosis, now lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her two children. She pays about $1,300 a month, significantly less than the average of $3,000 per month for a similar sized apartment in the same area. Perhaps most rewarding for Whiten is that she’s able to spend more time with family, as her commute to work dropped from two hours one way to just 25 minutes.

“Living where I am, paying what I pay … it’s a blessing, it’s a blessing,” Whiten said.

The demand for these affordable apartments is soaring. Norwood Learning Village has just 29 units in all, but Chang says nearly 600 people are on a waitlist hoping one opens up. More than half of them, he said, work for the Los Angeles school system.

“The need is really great,” he said.

The Eagle County, Colorado, school district “plans to build a 37-unit housing project for educators, using a middle school as collateral for the loans,” according to Colorado Public Radio.

Some teachers earn too much to qualify for help

On the paradise resort island of Maui, Hawaii, local legislators recently announced $15 million to be spent on dedicated teacher housing.

In pricey Silicon Valley, a local Catholic parish transformed a former convent, once used to house nuns, to house educators. “Rent is $1,000 a month (and includes) utilities … a furnished bedroom and private bathroom, with communal living spaces including a kitchen and laundry room,” according to local news outlets. Applicants reportedly need to interview with the church’s pastor to be considered.

But in Los Angeles, one major challenge with the affordable housing initiative is that most full-time teachers earn too much to qualify. Los Angeles Unified School District teachers earn a starting salary of $56,107 a year. The state regulated cap to qualify for affordable housing at places like Norwood Learning Village is 60% of average household income in Los Angeles, or $50,040 a year.

It puts those teachers and slightly higher earners in a difficult middle ground, making too much to be eligible for affordable housing and not enough, many teachers argue, to cover comfortable, convenient housing.

Whiten said most who qualify are, like her, a teaching assistant. Or they work as a bus driver, cafeteria worker, or part of the janitorial staff. She fears teachers are unfairly priced out.

“The cost of living is so expensive out there, even on a teacher’s salary, if they’re single like I am, they’re not going to be able to afford to live here,” she said.

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