California — On the first day of Oakland’s teacher strike last spring, Laura Jetter stood in the crowd at Frank Ogawa Plaza holding a hand-painted sign that read, “I live with my parents b/c I can’t afford rent.”
Jetter, 24, has been teaching middle school English and history at La Escuelita in Oakland near Lake Merritt for the last three years. Housing has been a challenge the entire time, as she only makes about $46,000 a year before taxes.
During her first year of teaching, she rented a room in a West Oakland house shared with four others. Her rent and utilities were around $800.
“Yes, rent was cheap,” she said, “but it was miserably depressing living in that house.”
Jetter said the house’s heating didn’t work, but using multiple space heaters would trip the breaker, so it was freezing in cold months. During a heatwave, its ubiquitous brown shag carpet developed a certain aroma. “We realized there must have been cats because the entire house reeked like cat pee,” she said.
There were issues outside the house as well. Jetter said within a few months of moving in, one of her roommates was mugged at gunpoint. “After that, I really stopped feeling safe at home,” she said.
Jetter spent about eight months “living there and tolerating it” — shelling out more than half of her paycheck on rent and her teacher’s credentials — before deciding to move back in with her parents.
She felt grateful to have had that option, but said that over time, the constraints of living at home started to make her feel isolated from friends, many of whom lived across the bay in San Francisco. Once she’d saved up enough, she decided to move to the city.
Jetter now shares a two-bedroom apartment with one other person in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. She has fewer roommates and lives closer to friends, but those upgrades came with a steep price tag: Jetter’s rent has doubled from what she was paying in West Oakland to $1,500 a month.
By San Francisco standards, that’s a steal — the market rate for a two-bedroom in the city is $4,550 — but her rent alone now eats up about half her paycheck. (Financial experts recommend spending a third or less of take-home pay on housing.)
The move has also cut into her free time: since relocating to the city, her commute has tripled from a 15-minute walk to a 45-minute BART trip each way.
In all of her time as a teacher, Jetter’s housing situation has always been defined by some sort of sacrifice — comfort, safety, or money — and she didn’t see that changing. Last year, she decided to quit teaching. The 2019-2020 school year will be her last.
Like others leaving education because of financial hardship in the Bay Area, Jetter will miss her students the most. “There’s nothing that compares to seeing a kid grow and change over time,” she said.
But it wasn’t enough. She said she always knew the job was tough, but “it wasn’t until I became a teacher that I felt how much work I do and how little I get paid.”
Stories like Jetter’s were at the heart of Oakland’s seven-day teacher strike in early 2019. The Bay Area is one of the most expensive places to live in America, and teacher salaries in Oakland are some of the region’s lowest.
According to the most recent information available from California’s Department of Education, the average teacher in the city makes $63,000 a year — though new teachers, like Jetter, make much less — and pay increases are small and incremental. As a result, the Oakland Education Association estimates that the school district loses one in five of its teachers to other professions or other cities each year.
It’s an extreme example of a larger problem that’s being felt in teaching communities across California. Housing is getting more expensive statewide, most notably in urban areas, and teachers, especially new ones making starting salaries, are struggling to keep up.
California isn’t the only state where being a teacher is difficult. The 2019 teacher strikes in Oakland and Los Angeles were part of a larger national movement, which kicked off with a major strike in West Virginia the year before, and also included smaller strikes and protests in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado and Arizona. In October, teachers in Chicago, the country’s third-largest district, walked out for 11 days.
Even in states without strikes, teachers are frustrated.
In a recent poll by PDK International, which collects opinions about education, two-thirds of all teachers surveyed said they would strike if given the chance. Half said that they’ve seriously considered leaving the profession, citing low pay as the main reason.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that about a million people left the education field in 2018, more than any other year.
In California, the issue of low pay is compounded by the state’s soaring housing costs.
Five of the country’s top ten most expensive rental markets are located in California. San Francisco — where the average one-bedroom apartment costs about $3,500 a month — is at the top of the list, followed by San Jose, Los Angeles, Oakland and San Diego, according to data compiled from the rental listing site Zumper. The average teacher salary in San Francisco is $83,000.
Gabriella Landeros, a California Teachers Association (CTA) spokesperson, said many educators who teach in the state’s urban districts are forced to find housing in cheaper towns and tack on long commutes to their already full work days.
She shared the story of one San Jose teacher, a single dad, who commutes an hour and a half each day. He’s considered moving, but can’t leave the Bay Area because he shares custody of his daughter. “These are the decisions our teachers make every single day,” Landeros said.
Situations like this don’t just affect teachers, she added. “We know that students suffer from not having their teachers live in their communities, unable to take part in after-school activities [or] develop relationships with parents and organizations.”
In an effort to help combat this issue, the CTA helps teacher unions bargain for higher pay and advocates for the development of affordable housing complexes for school district employees, which have been growing in popularity across California in recent years.
Such developments have already been built in Los Angeles, Santa Clara and San Mateo. Several other school districts, most of them in the Bay Area, have approved or are considering similar projects. A 100-plus-unit housing complex in San Francisco is expected to be completed in 2023.
But these developments aren’t a perfect fix. Because most of them are funded with federal tax credits, they’re only available to people within a specific income bracket. In most cases, even new teachers at the bottom of the pay scale make too much to qualify for these apartments, even if they can’t afford market-rate housing.
In Los Angeles, for example, the average teacher salary is about $79,000, and a one-bedroom apartment rents for around $2,556. The Los Angeles Unified School District — the largest in the state — has built three affordable housing complexes for its employees since 2015. To qualify for one of the units, applicants need to make 30 to 60 percent of the city’s area median income. Most teachers, however, make more.
In 2016, the L.A. Times reported that LAUSD’s teachers earned too much to be eligible for the district’s housing and that the units were being rented instead to lower-paid employees, like cafeteria workers and teaching assistants.
Sarah Chaffin, founder of Support Teacher Housing, calls teachers in this financial limbo the “missing middle.” She said there’s an urgent need for affordable housing that allows teachers to live where they work.
“A lot of young people can’t even go into teaching,” she said, adding that, meanwhile, older teachers are retiring. “We’re not producing teachers because it’s too expensive to live here. The education system is going to implode unless we solve the housing crisis.”
Chaffin, who has a background in banking, was inspired to get involved with housing advocacy seven years ago, after learning that her daughter’s preschool teacher was commuting an hour and a half each way to work in Palo Alto. She started advocating for affordable housing measures that rely on traditional finance practices, rather than federal funding. She’s working on building a model that can be replicated by school districts and, eventually, other industries across the state.
In October, Facebook announced plans to donate $25 million to help fund a housing development for teachers in Silicon Valley. Because it’s being financed by philanthropy, the complex’s 90 to 120 units will be available to even those teachers who earn too much to be considered for traditional subsidized housing.
“It’s a game changer,” Chaffin said. “And it’s a real acknowledgement from Facebook: We have been part of the problem, but now we’re going to be part of the solution to solve the housing crisis.”
The donation is one of several recent gestures by the tech industry to support education and housing affordability in California. In September, Salesforce pledged $18.2 million in grants to the San Francisco and Oakland school districts. In November, Apple announced a detailed $2.5 billion plan to address the housing crisis all across the state.
The tech industry, largely centered in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, has long been accused of exacerbating the region’s housing problems. Big tech companies have brought hundreds of thousands of new residents to the area, creating competition for housing and driving up prices. Because those same companies also offer competitive salaries, their employees are better able to keep up with the region’s high cost of living.
This was one of the factors that led to Jetter’s decision to quit teaching. Watching so many of her peers get high-paying tech jobs made her feel discouraged about a future in education, considering she expects her salary to top out at around $80,000.
“Some of my friends who work in tech doing unnecessary jobs, a lot of them start [there]. They can ask for promotions or get bonuses,” she said. “You don’t get to do that as a teacher.”
This difference isn’t lost on the Oakland Unified School District. John Sasaki, the district’s spokesperson, said officials know that as a public agency they can’t offer the same perks as large tech companies like Google or Facebook.
“Being located so close to Silicon Valley, we are in competition with the tech industry for good talent,” he said. “Based on the money, it’s hard to win that fight in some cases.”
Jetter, for one, isn’t leaving teaching to pursue a career in tech. She’s in the process of applying to law schools, where she wants to study labor law, in large part due to her experiences participating in the Oakland teacher strike.
Still, many others stay in education, even when it means making sacrifices.
Ali King, 29, just started teaching ethnic studies at Coliseum College Prep Academy in East Oakland with a salary of about $58,000 a year. She lives with her fiancée, who’s also a teacher, in the nearby city of Dublin. The two share a one-bedroom apartment in San Ramon, about 25 miles east of Oakland, for $2,600.
King’s commute is about 40 minutes each way. In the Bay Area’s notoriously heavy traffic, it can sometimes take over an hour.
“We were thinking of moving because of the commute,” she said, “but realistically unless we get some wildly lucky Craigslist deal, it’s not financially responsible. We feel trapped.”
In addition to teaching, King coaches volleyball. During the season, she leaves her house at 6:30 a.m. and doesn’t return home until nearly 8 p.m.
“The hardest part is coming home so late and deciding whether I’m going to plan for tomorrow, grade work, or spend time with my fiancée,” she said.
Despite the difficulties, King said she’s committed to staying in education. She loves her job, and she’s happy to be in Oakland, a district that feels more organized and progressive than others she’s worked in.
Still, King sometimes wonders if her future as a teacher will always be marked by sacrifice, including not being able to buy a home or start a family in the Bay Area.
“I hear it eventually gets more stable,” she said. But right now, “it feels shaky. It feels really unsustainable.”
Unaffordable housing, rising tuition and long commutes are part of the struggle for many young adults in California. Click here for more stories on how they're trying to make it work.