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Richmond teachers struggle to afford housing on “poverty level” salaries

on December 14, 2018

Diane Maddox sold gold jewelry as a side hustle, just to get by during her 33 years of teaching in Richmond. The single mother raised her two daughters in an apartment above a garage.

It took the 56-year-old Maddox more than two decades until she could finally afford to purchase a home. She currently teaches transitional kindergarten for English learners at Downer Elementary School.

“I’m a single parent in the Bay Area, so then trying to make it on one teacher’s salary puts you at the poverty level, and that’s not being treated like a professional,” she said.

Maddox’s long journey to home ownership highlights the difficulty Richmond teachers face finding affordable housing. The lack of affordable housing is leading to a high turnover rate for teachers and hurting the quality of education in the schools, say the leaders of the teachers’ union, United Teachers of Richmond.

The median price of homes in Richmond has gone up by more than 10 percent in the past year ending in October 2018, according to real estate database Zillow. It says median housing prices are expected to increase by almost 7 percent next year.

The median teachers’ salary is not increasing at a proportional rate to the median price of homes, forcing teachers to leave Richmond schools, teachers and union leaders said.

The large number of teachers leaving Richmond schools contributes to the high turnover rate among educators in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, a district report says. Thirty-one percent of teachers left the district in their first few years of teaching, the report stated. The district turnover rate is almost double the national rate of 17 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Education in Richmond schools has suffered as a consequence, teachers and administrators say. About half of the students in the school district have not met the standard set by the state for proficiency in English literacy and mathematics, according to test results from Smarter Balanced, the association that creates standardized tests.

Richmond teacher Jordan Theroux and union leader Demetrio Gonzalez share their experiences as professionals struggling to find affordable housing in the city.

Jordan Theroux, 27, a first-grade teacher at Grant Elementary school, said she finds her lifestyle, “a little degrading,” for a credentialed teacher with a master’s degree. Like most teachers with her level of experience, she can’t afford to live in a place of her own in Richmond. She is forced to share an apartment in Oakland with two roommates in order to afford the rent.

For Theroux, managing finances is a tug-of-war between paying student loans, rent and basic living costs. She also budgets a few hundred dollars each month to pay for her own classroom supplies because the school district doesn’t provide enough funds.

Demetrio Gonzalez, 28, is also struggling with the high cost of housing in the Bay Area even though he’s president of the teachers’ union. He has to live with four housemates in order to afford the rent, he said.

Gonzalez said he’s considering leaving the Bay Area with his fiance, who is also a teacher, because of the lack of affordable housing. The two of them won’t be able to afford to buy a good quality home in the area in the near future, he said.

Jesus Galindo, 27, a third-grade bilingual teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, said the lack of sufficient money in education is the main reason marginalized communities have the highest turnover rate of teachers in the Bay Area.

As a professional with a master’s degree and classroom experience, teachers expect a career, “where you’re not living day-by-day,” said Galindo, who is also a member of the teachers’ union. Teachers don’t want to worry about economic survival, he said.

Maddox, the kindergarten teacher who is also secretary of the teachers’ union, said she no longer thinks of teaching as a profession because of the “poverty level salaries.”

Try as she might, she said, she couldn’t give her daughters a permanent home when they were growing up. They were displaced twice during their childhood, once because her rent increased by 33 percent in one year, she said.

When Maddox started her career at the age of 23, she said, teachers could still afford to buy a home. Now, decades later, teachers can no longer afford to buy homes, she said.

The average teacher’s annual salary was $78,000 in the state of California in 2017, the most recent year in which the data was available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The average annual salary for teachers in the district that year was $66,000, which is lower than the state average, according to the California Department of Education. That figure was calculated before the district voted recently to raise teacher salaries by 15 percent, which started in July this year and will continue to take effect over the next two years.

The median value of a house in Richmond is currently more than $500,000, according to real estate company Zillow. The city’s value is more than double the national median value for a home, which is a little above $200,000, according to Zillow.

Although the district recently agreed to give teachers a 15 percent salary increase, teachers and union leaders said it’s still not enough to buy a house.

“After taxes, there isn’t much of a difference,” Maddox said, particularly given that other costs have also risen, including health insurance.

Data from the teachers’ union shows that before the salary increase, it took 24 years for a district teacher with at least eight years of experience to be able to buy a home.

Many teachers face a grim choice between long commutes to work, sharing their living space with multiple roommates or paying the high cost of rent.

Richmond schools are losing high quality teachers as a result, because they are living paycheck-to-paycheck, the union leaders said.

Eric Johnson a spokesperson for the California Housing Finance Agency, a program that helps teachers buy their first home, said becoming a homeowner in the Bay Area is getting more difficult.

“Home prices just keep going up, and it’s really hard for so many people to do it, no matter how much money they have,” he said.

The number of loans his agency has given out has more than tripled in the past four years because California has one of the lowest affordability indexes in the country, Johnson said. The affordability index measures the population’s ability to afford certain things, such as houses, based on income.

California ranks 49th out of the 50 states for affordability and 50th for the quality of life in the country, according to a report by McKinsey & Company.

Union leader Maddox said the future of education is in the reform of Proposition 13, which limits how much school budgets can go up. She said she is advocating for the reform of Proposition 13 in the 2020 voting ballot.

Teachers’ financial struggles are so severe that many have to get extra jobs as tutors and find other work during the summer to make ends meet. Maddox is also one of many teachers who has worked extra jobs.

Galindo said he, too, took an additional job, serving as the director of a summer school program at a school in San Pablo.

This new norm of Richmond teachers working two jobs, “isn’t good for the education of our kids,” he said.

“Teachers are distracted on how they’re going to make it and how they’re going to pay their bills,” he said.

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