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Boarding School For Teachers

front of Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Miami
Phillis Wheatley Elementary in Miami, Fla. is a candidate for new housing for teachers.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Pietro.

When you picture teachers living at the schools where they teach, you may picture a high-end boarding school, perhaps surrounded by picturesque New England foliage.

If a new program succeeds, however, you should expand that picture to include housing complexes on public school property in downtown Miami.

Miami-Dade County has proposed a plan to build residential units either as part of new school buildings or on school grounds adjacent to existing structures. Teachers working in Miami-Dade public schools will have priority for these units, whose rents would be below standard market rates; if any units remain unoccupied, other school employees will have a chance to rent them. Units could be rented to those outside the school system too, though people involved in the project suggest it is unlikely the apartments will be hard to fill. “There definitely will be more teachers who qualify for this program than there will be units available,” Jaime Torrens, the chief facilities officer of the Miami-Dade school system, told the Miami Herald.

The idea is meant to tackle a two-pronged problem: lack of land for new housing developments in Miami’s urban core, and the gap between typical public school teacher salaries and area housing prices.

For now, the county is talking to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about the plan, which has already secured a grant from JPMorgan Chase and support from Miami’s Omni Community Redevelopment Area. While the project is not yet certain to move forward, it has attracted momentum and community support.

The idea does face some logistical complications. School funds may only be used to improve schools, which means residential projects need to be funded directly by the county, likely through a private developer. For mixed-used buildings, such as a proposed mid-rise middle school in the Brickell area that would incorporate both classroom space and housing, the math could become complex.

Even so, the idea has merit. Lots of urban centers have trouble providing affordable housing with reasonable commutes for public employees and other moderate-income workers. The idea of teachers living on or near school property makes some sense, especially since it means schools and housing can share some land and infrastructure cost. Land that holds only a school is used part-time; land with housing on it gets used all the time. So schools would benefit from more efficient use of their land resources.

Miami-Dade is not the first municipality to think creatively about how to secure housing for its teachers. Unsurprisingly, many of the school districts experimenting with becoming landlords are located in pricy California. In 2016 that state passed legislation expressly designed to make it easier for school districts to develop and maintain employee housing. California has faced a sharp teacher shortage in recent years, and the legislation is an effort to help districts in areas with especially high housing costs retain educators. San Francisco announced in 2015 that it would build new housing units for faculty and consider options such as subsidies and forgivable loans to support about 500 of the city’s teachers. Cupertino Union School District in Silicon Valley announced that it would seek to build 200 housing units on the site of a shuttered elementary school just a few months later. Santa Clara’s school district offers subsidized housing in 70 suburban townhouses to some new employees for up to seven years in an effort to attract and keep qualified teachers, a system that has been in place since 2002. It seems that the only major problem with Santa Clara’s program is that demand far outstrips supply.

School districts in Colorado have also faced the problem of lagging teacher salaries and sharply rising housing costs. While Denver has taken steps to create affordable housing for its residents, many of the city’s teachers make too much to qualify for such solutions but still struggle to keep up with spiking housing costs. Some of them leave Denver after a few years, while others stay but pursue a different line of work. Several of Colorado’s rural districts have long offered subsidized housing to teachers as a way to attract educators; Denver’s public school system is considering its options, though it recently scrapped an idea to turn a vacant elementary school into teacher housing after neighborhood outcry. (I have no idea why the prospective neighbors found an influx of teachers objectionable, but it could be payback for some long-ago summer reading assignments.)

Communities with unusually high rents are not the only ones experimenting with how best to get teachers into affordable housing. Indianapolis Public Schools is working with several area nonprofits on developing a housing project called Teachers’ Village to revitalize a downtown neighborhood, where teachers will have access to homes offered at a subsidized price. Unlike many other programs, the Indiana version offers teachers an opportunity to buy, not just rent, if they meet income requirements and agree to live in the homes for at least five years.

Newark, New Jersey, has also developed its own Teachers Village, a mixed-used development integrated into downtown. The neighborhood includes three charter schools and about 200 apartments where educators are the preferred tenants. In contrast to some of the other projects, Newark hoped to use the project to spur more private development in the surrounding neighborhoods, rather than combating an already overheated housing market.

The main criticism of many housing projects aimed at teachers is that school districts would do better to simply raise teacher pay. But the reality of teacher union negotiation means that, in many places, this solution is not as simple as it sounds, assuming it is possible at all. School districts may also be able to secure one-time sources of funding for capital projects that simply are not available as an ongoing boost to their operating costs.

Overall I like Miami-Dade’s idea, especially if governments engage private developers to handle the actual construction and operation of the housing. Santa Clara’s successful program operates this way. Public run housing projects do not have a great track record of being well-maintained, but a well-designed process involving companies who know real estate could put public assets to better use while retaining good teachers who might otherwise leave for greener, or at least cheaper, pastures.

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