Housing prices test teachers

Homes in affluent communities are often out of reach for teachers

After teaching for eight years in San Jose, Calif., Seena Hawley was ready to pack up her things and move to southern Oregon where the cost of living is more reasonable. The fifth-grade teacher thought she'd never be able to afford a place of her own in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the median price for a home is $512,000.

But then she paused. Interest rates dropped and her salary went up slightly. She also remembered those fliers stuffed in her box at school - the ones about a special home-buying program for teachers.

"I could have bought some rathole, but I didn't want a rathole for $280,000," says Hawley with a laugh.

There were other factors involved, too. If she was going to buy, Hawley wanted to stay in the same school district where her son is attending high school. She also wanted to ride her bike to work and participate in Saturday school activities.

So Hawley, who had rented a house for 13 years, sat down with a mortgage broker. With a deferred loan assistance of $40,000 from the San Jose Teacher Homebuyer Program, she bought a condominium for $340,000 earlier this year. Hawley doesn't pay anything on the $40,000 until she sells her condo. "The program is saying, 'It's hard to live here on a teacher's paycheck and we want teachers. So, we'll help you live here,' " says Hawley, a single mother of two.

Skyrocketing real estate coupled with stagnant teacher salaries - which increased only 3 percent between 1991 and 2001 - are pricing some teachers out of their school districts.

These teachers, both new and in the middle of their careers, are forced to switch districts or endure lengthy commutes. School officials in these pricey areas hope that homebuyer programs will help to attract new teachers and retain those already on staff.

"Very often, teachers will live in other communities or double up and have roommates; that's not un-usual for young teachers," says Mildred Hudson, CEO of Recruiting New Teachers, a clearinghouse for prospective teachers, in Belmont, Mass.

"If you look at the country, certain school districts will offer housing incentives or bonuses, extra pay for certain kinds of work, or discounted mortgage rates, or cash stipends for housing. These are all incentives that seem to have some benefit."

Still, housing programs and incentives aren't without their flaws, says Hudson.

Some provide just a temporary Band-Aid. A few years back, Massachusetts offered $20,000 bonuses to attract teachers, payable over several years - only to see many of those teachers leave their jobs as soon as possible.

"They didn't have a good screening process" to identify those teachers who would stay beyond the initial required time period, says Hudson.

Elsewhere, HUD's Officer Next Door and Teacher Next Door programs were suspended in 2001 for three months due to poor management control and homebuyer fraud. And even though San Jose's home-buyer program helped Hawley buy her own place, she still had to tap other resources to fork over a down payment.

An 85-mile commute

But there are some bright spots. If it wasn't for the San Jose Housing program, superintendent Barry Groves would have lost his award-winning band director.

"She probably would have left in order to purchase a home in the central valley, had this program not been available to her," says Mr. Groves, superintendent of the Cambrian School District in San Jose. "People are able to stay in this area and get into the housing market that wouldn't have before. This has made the retention of those teachers possible."

But Groves says there are still a few who commute from far distances, including a teacher who travels about 85 miles each way.

Elementary schoolteacher Cassie Nederhouser's commute isn't as severe, but she and her husband did have to look six towns away to find an affordable house. She teaches art in Hinsdale, Ill., where it's not unusual to pay $450,000 for a three-bedroom, one-bath ranch house.

She and her husband moved to Bolingbrook, where they bought a house for under $300,000. With traffic, it's about a 45-minute drive.

"We knew that Hinsdale was an unaffordable starting point, so we just started looking around the perimeter. And we ended up further out than we originally thought," says Ms. Nederhouser.

But some worry that living so far from the districts in which they teach denies teachers the chance for a tighter bond to parents and communities.

Benefits of proximity

Jamilia McIntyre values the close proximity to her school, Edgar Allen Poe Elementary in Suitland, Md. Through HUD's Teacher Next Door Program, Ms. McIntyre, with her husband, was able to buy a three-bedroom townhouse three years ago and received a 50 percent discount off their $124,000 home. Since its inception in November 1999, the HUD program has sold 3,025 homes to teachers.

McIntyre says it's a bonus that some of her students live in her neighborhood.

"It's amazing what you can do when you're living in a community with the students who attend your school, as far as helping parents with things that may arise, with school or homework," says McIntyre.

Many teachers throughout the country most cope without any housing assistance programs.

Cara Worobec, who teaches in Carol Stream, Ill., says no such programs exist in her area. There is a credit union, she says, that assists teachers with a lower interest rate. But, says Ms. Worobec, "we're pretty much on our own. I would not be living in my house if it weren't for my husband."

"A new teacher can't afford to live in an expensive school district unless her husband makes money," says teacher Jill Krisiak.

One of the reasons she moved out of her hometown of Saugus, Mass., was the high cost of living. She and her husband moved further north, to Groveland, Mass., so they could afford a house under $300,000. "My husband is in the computer industry, but if you're two teachers, there's no way."

The problem is especially acute for "destination areas" like Cape Cod.

"During the summer, even the rental market has become difficult for teachers to come down and rent like they used to," says real-estate agent Dale James. Teachers can rent winter rentals (October to May) for about $600 to $900 a month. But during the summer, most rentals are about $1,500 a week.

"You can certainly rent during the winter for reasonable rates, but then you have to vacate for the summer," says Ms. James. "There are actually people that I have heard of that move into the camp grounds. The housing issue is difficult - and these are gainfully employed people."

Jermaine Brown lives in Tampa, Fla., and dreams of owning a house someday. He's working toward his goal by renting in an Equity Residential complex.

The company has a program called Hometown Heroes, geared to help teachers and policemen.

A percentage of Mr. Brown's monthly rent is put toward equity in a home. With this program, several rental fees, such as a security deposit, are waived for teachers.

The pay was so low, he says, that soon after he started, "I felt like leaving." He adds, though, "If all teachers left because of the pay, we'd all be in trouble. If it were only for the money, I could have left a long time ago."

Of course, if teachers are really in a bind, they can always phone home. "We do have a buyer-assistance program," says teacher Lyn Hough of Orange County, Calif.. "It's called Mom and Dad."

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