Originally published in The American Prospect on November 18, 2015.
On December 1, Allison Leshefsky, an elementary school gym teacher in San Francisco, will be evicted from the rent-controlled apartment she’s lived in for the past ten years. She and her partner pay $2,000 a month in rent, but if their place were put on the market, it would likely go for at least $5,000 a month—far more than any public school teacher could afford. As of August 2015, one-bedroom apartments in San Francisco rented for an average of $2,965 a month, and two-bedrooms for $3,853. Leshefsky’s landlord, who manages and partially owns nine San Francisco properties, has gained notoriety for evicting or allegedly forcing tenants out, in order to rent their units for more money.
Leshefsky has decided to finish out the school year teaching in San Francisco, even if that means paying jacked up prices for an air mattress she finds on Craigslist. “I’m making a commitment to get through the rest of the year regardless of whose couch I’m on or whose overpriced house I’m in,” she says. “I’m making a commitment to my students to finish this out.” But then, she says, she’ll have to leave.
In recent years, a growing number of researchers, policymakers, and philanthropists have directed their attention to the relationship between housing instability and student achievement. A great deal of evidence has shown how homelessness and housing insecurity can negatively impact a student’s behavior, which creates problems not only for them but for their classmates and teachers as well. A host of educational interventions are being tried in conjunction with local housing authorities, and some cities are even tying housing vouchers to specific struggling schools—in the hopes that such requirements will reduce student turnover and increase school performance.
Yet despite the perennial quest for top-notch teachers, less attention has been paid to the relationship between educators and their housing. It doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to think that teachers’ instructional capacities could be impacted by conditions they face outside the classroom, such as high rents, or unsafe housing. “There is no possible way the city can recruit talented people and maintain them with the housing crisis here,” says Leshefsky. “Students deserve teachers that are secure in their homes, and when a teacher is not secure, they can’t be the most effective educator.”
The city of San Francisco seems to agree. Last month, San Francisco’s mayor announced a new plan, formed in partnership with the school district and the teachers union, to provide housing assistance to some 500 public school teachers by 2020. Elements of the plan include forgivable loans, rental subsidies, housing counseling services, and the development of affordable housing specifically for teachers. This month, 73 percent of San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure that will help make this plan a reality.
Across the country, other variants of teacher housing developments have cropped up, or are in the works—though the motivations for them, and allies behind them, differ from city to city. From San Francisco, to West Virginia, to Philadelphia, the efforts to attract, or retain, teachers through subsidized housing is growing more pronounced, and debates over how such projects impact their surrounding communities are likely to intensify in the coming years.
MATTHEW HARDY, the communications director for the San Francisco teachers union, says the union has a three-pronged strategy to deal with the city’s housing crisis. The first involves fighting for higher wages. In December 2014, the union negotiated a substantial salary increase for teachers and aides—a raise of more than 12 percent over three years. “But if we just limited ourselves to that, we’re not going to be successful,” says Hardy, which is why the union has also been pushing for teacher housing—using surplus district property—and for broader affordable housing policies for all city residents.
“Of course San Francisco is a wonderful place, and some people are willing to make immediate sacrifices to get their foot in the door, but it gets to a point where teachers start to wonder if they should continue paying $1,500 a month for a tiny room or move to the suburbs [where salaries are higher and housing is cheaper] and make $15,000-$20,000 more,” says Hardy. “We need to find ways to support teachers early in their careers, but also those who are more experienced and might want to start a family or buy a home.”
“If affordable brick-and-mortar teacher housing were actually here right now, and not several years in the future, then there would be no doubt in my mind that I would have continued to stay in the district,” Leshefsky said, wearily.
A very different sort of housing crisis plagues McDowell County, West Virginia—a poor, rural area, with a population that’s fallen by 80 percent since the 1950s. Teachers aren’t being priced out, but few want to move there, and those who might be so inclined struggle to find attractive housing options.
In 2011, former West Virginia First Lady Gayle Manchin asked Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), to help her figure out a way to improve McDowell’s school system. They started to organize a coalition of public and private organizations to tackle not only educational issues, but also regional poverty. In a speech given in 2012, Weingarten called this effort “solution-driven unionism.” Rather than shut down a school that’s struggling, she argued, unions can push to strengthen them with wraparound services. Then “learning improves, the school improves, community schools become more attractive than private or charter schools, people return to them with new confidence, home values increase and communities are renewed.”
Part of the McDowell plan includes not just wraparound services for community members, but also new apartments to attract teachers who might not otherwise want to move to McDowell County. As the lead coordinator involved in the teacher housing complex told Governing, “You can’t expect someone to leave life on a college campus for an isolated area where they live in the middle of nowhere and don’t know anybody.”
“What we’re constructing is the first multiple-story building in the area in decades,” said Weingarten in an interview. “The housing will address three big issues: the high teacher vacancy rate, the dearth of available housing, and the need for economic development.”
WHILE McDOWELL COUNTY’S “teacher village” won’t be the nation’s first, others are generally found in urban areas, and have been constructed largely without the involvement of the local teachers unions. In fact, partners more closely aligned to the educational reform movement have led them—those with ties to charter school networks and organizations like Teach for America.
In 2012, then-Mayor of Newark Cory Booker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, leaders from Google and Goldman Sachs, and others gathered to break ground on the Newark Teachers Village—a downtown Newark development that houses three charter schools, a daycare facility, more than 200 subsidized teacher apartments, and nearly two dozen retail shops. The project received tens of millions of dollars in tax credits. (The Wall Street Journal reported on the event with the headline: “Viewing Newark as a ‘Blank Canvas’”.) The real estate development group that spearheaded the project, RBH Group, is listed as a Teach for America corporate sponsor, and one of RBH’s founding partners, Ron Beit, is the chairman of the board of TFA’s New Jersey chapter.
The Newark Teachers Union, an affiliate of the AFT, originally backed the Newark Teachers Village—though Newark teachers say that their now-deceased president, Joseph Del Grosso, did so without consulting union members. The AFT is an affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor organizations that includes construction unions, and some think Del Grosso supported the plan because it carried the potential to create new construction jobs, not because it was actually in the teachers’ interest. However, despite Del Grosso’s initial support, the union was ultimately uninvolved with the project.
“They basically shut out the public school teachers and the public school union,” said Weingarten in an interview. “Just like they shut out the community from their reform efforts, they shut us out too. Initially we had conversations [about the Teachers Village], and then we were stonewalled.” Had the AFT been involved, then the union likely would have invested pension funds into the project, which may have broadened, and diversified, the project’s mission, and given more stakeholders a say in shaping its development. The union could have also pushed to bring on different types of asset managers, like the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, which they used in West Virginia and San Francisco. Ron Beit did not return repeated requests for comment.
Over the past couple years, similar teacher housing projects have opened up in other East Coast cities. In 2009, the Seawall Development Corporation established Miller’s Court in Baltimore, using millions of dollars in local, state, and federal tax credits—and another, Union Mill, a few years later. The lead developer, Donald Manekin, was a former board member of Teach For America, and said he originally got the idea to build teacher villages when he saw 100 new TFA members arriving in Baltimore each year. “We’d sit at the end of these board meetings and say wouldn’t it be great if there was a great place for teachers new to the city?” He made these remarks to Newsworks in 2013, as his company prepared to build another teacher housing complex in Philadelphia.
Teach For America’s vice president for administration, Matt Gould, told The New York Times that his organization backs the projects because they “allow [teachers] to have safe, affordable housing. It’s a recruiting tool.” Teach For America is also reportedly looking into New Orleans and Washington as additional cities to expand teacher housing.
I spoke with Thibault Manekin, Donald Manekin’s son, and co-founder of Seawall Development Corporation, about his work building teacher housing. “Really our goal was to provide Class-A apartments and space for teachers doing the most important work in our city, which is helping kids get an education,” he said. To do this, the Manekins provide teachers with a free fitness center, free parking, reduced rent, lounge space, and other amenities that one might find in a more expensive apartment building. (Their website describes the buildings as “an urban oasis”.) Manekin says his company is in the middle of a similar project in Springfield, Massachusetts, and helping others think through comparable developments in other cities. “Yeah, I think you’ll start to see this spread more,” he said.
I asked him if he thought Baltimore teachers had struggled to find safe or affordable housing before he and his father embarked on their projects. “I think the challenge was that teachers, often new to Baltimore, and new to the classroom, weren’t living with like-minded people, and so might be making bad decisions on where to live,” he said. “As a result of that it makes the job that much harder. We just wanted to provide them with a world class space at a significant discount.”
While safe and affordable housing was available, he went on, “you wouldn’t really be living with people in the same boat as you.” They wanted to establish a space where teachers could lean on one another outside of the workplace.
Weingarten says the union was not included in the Philadelphia project, and was only cursorily consulted with for the Baltimore developments.
BRANDEN RIPPEY, a Newark public school teacher who has been working in the district for 18 years, said he acknowledges that Newark needs to build better housing to attract high-quality teachers. “Newark isn’t San Francisco. You do need to work to draw people in, and some of the housing we have here is in bad neighborhoods, and there is crime,” he says. As well, most of Newark’s teachers live outside of the city, so the idea of enabling teachers to establish roots as residents within the community is something he also likes. “I support the idea of creating good, affordable housing for working class people. The problem is that [the Newark Teachers Village] is clearly designed for white, young professional types, at a time when we desperately need more housing for poor people of color.”
Rippey notes that the Teachers Village is located close to other redevelopment projects in downtown Newark. “It’s just becoming a little yuppie commercial district,” he says. “The reality is they have a vision for gentrifying the whole downtown.” Rippey believes that these projects serve as a way to easily import TFA teachers, and by extension, weaken union power. Whereas developers like Beit and Manekin see the teacher housing complexes as positive ways to build communal spaces for local educators, Rippey thinks they can serve as a vehicle to isolate new and relatively young teachers from the union and the broader community. “It’ll keep those teachers residentially, and almost culturally, segregated,” he says.
IN A WAY, these Teachers Villages function as sort of a camp experience. You may be making a two-year commitment to live and work in an unfamiliar city, one that perhaps you, or your family, worry is unsafe. You know that you’re going to be working hard, long days—and so living in close quarters with people going through similar experiences might be quite comforting. All in all, it appears to be a pretty good deal—you’ll be afforded lots of amenities and discounts, you’ll live in a place you know is secure, and you’ll have the chance to develop friendships with other “like-minded” individuals.
In 2013, Mark Weber, a public school teacher and an education policy doctoral student, wrote some strong critiques about these new teacher housing projects.
It’s the perfect scheme: Beit and his private investors get tens of millions of dollars in tax credits to finance the development. He then turns around and rents his commercial units to charter schools, which drain tax revenues away from the neighboring public schools (which could sorely use the money to shore up their crumbling infrastructures). Those schools then pay their young teachers, recruited from TFA, who then turn around and pay rent to Beit. So Beit’s managed to develop three revenue streams—tax credits, charter school rents, and teacher residence rents—all made possible by the proliferation of charters and TFA.
And here’s the real beauty part: If the neighborhood gets gentrified and property values rise, the increases accrue to the property owners—like Beit—but not the people who actually live in the neighborhood. Think about it: If these teachers were buying brownstones and condos, the rising property values would accrue to them. But, because they’re renters, and not owners, they don’t see any of the increase. Their presence will raise the value of the neighborhood’s properties, but they’ll get none of the reward (assuming everything goes according to plan).
I called Weber to discuss some of his thoughts in greater detail. He sounded skeptical that these subsidized projects had much value at all: Will they really help attract lifelong educators into the profession, or will they just serve as a nice perk for young teachers who wouldn’t stay in the classroom beyond a few years anyway?
“If these charter schools need young people who are willing to work long hours and do the career for just a couple years, then things like teacher villages are almost custom-made, because you’re not going to be buying condos, and it’s close to your work,” he said. “Is that sustainable? I would argue no if we’re trying to build a workforce that sees teaching as a lifetime career. We could continue to build, or we can ask ourselves if we’re paying teachers enough money. If you can’t comfortably live here without staying in subsidized housing, maybe that’s a problem.”
Others have also questioned whether this whole subsidized housing deal isn’t just a misplaced way to avoid paying teachers significantly higher salaries. An individual used to feel more comfortable entering the teaching profession—despite its lack of prestige or big paychecks—given the relative stability if offered: a middle-class life, solid health care benefits, and a stable pension to live on during retirement. Today, however, those sorts of guarantees are beginning to fall by the wayside.
“If you’re not going to offer good health care benefits, what are you going to offer to get people to join the profession?” asked Weber. “Some modest rent control in hip neighborhoods? That’s not going to help the neighborhood much, and that’s not going to be much of an incentive to go into teaching.”
MAYBE SUBSIDIZED HOUSING that targets young professionals won’t be what it takes to help attract career educators, yet it’s clear that cities do want to help recruit and retain educators who actually live in the communities in which they serve—an effort that may require more than just a salary increase (though that would help.) Whether it’s a Teach for America participant looking for a supportive communal space, or a mid-career educator with a family who wants to live closer to his or her workplace, thinking about the intersections between housing and teaching is something that even the most progressive unionists, like Rippey, believe we should be doing more of.
Weingarten defended the AFT’s McDowell and San Francisco projects, and contrasted them with the ones in Baltimore, Newark, and Philadelphia. “We’re not looking to create a boutique pipeline for some people to work in different communities, it’s not that,” she said. “It’s about creating affordable housing so people can establish roots in the cities in which they live.”
Still, even teacher villages more closely aligned to the reform movement are helping young teachers, and local nonprofit organizations, forge better ties with the communities in which they serve. “The amount of teachers that have actually stayed in the classroom and in Baltimore, and then gone out and bought homes has been really inspiring to see,” said Thibault Manekin. Of the 30 homes he and his father have built in Baltimore, he says 20 have been sold to former tenants of Miller’s Court and Union Mill.
Would Leshefsky be willing to live outside San Francisco and continue working at her school with a longer daily commute?
“No, I would not be willing to do a two-hour commute just to serve a community that I don’t belong to,” she said. “I’m one of the most constant people in my students’ lives right now, and I don’t think someone who lives outside the city can necessarily connect with their students in the same way. We’re all going through very similar struggles.”