High housing costs, low pay force Florida teachers to stretch limits
The students in Ms. Stringer’s chemistry class at North Port High School would crack up when Alex Foley, 17, slipped and called his teacher by her first name, Jen.
It was an honest mistake. She wasn’t just his teacher last year — she was also his coworker.
By day Stringer teaches high school chemistry. By night, she waits tables at the British Open Pub in Venice, hustling pints of beer to the snowbirds who pack the pub each night and working alongside kids she explained covalent bonds to hours earlier.
A 10-year teaching veteran in Sarasota County Schools, Stringer is struggling to stretch her $57,423 annual salary to cover the costs of housing, putting two kids through college and her own roughly $15,000 student debt from earning her master’s degree.
Her spare hours are filled with waitressing, tutoring, proctoring practice SAT classes and renting rooms in her house. Colleagues across the state adopt those tactics and more as they seek creative ways to hold onto a profession they love as their paychecks seem ever more inadequate to pay for life in the Sunshine State.
“The love of my life is teaching, but I can’t keep doing it,” she said. “It is ridiculous.”
In the first analysis of its kind, USA TODAY Network reporters examined salaries and housing costs for teachers all over Florida.
Reporters obtained salary data from nearly all 67 school districts and compared median teacher income to median rental costs. In nearly every corner of the state, teachers spend more than a third of their monthly income on housing costs.
Areas were deemed affordable if teachers would have to spend no more than 30% of their salaries — after accounting for federal taxes — to cover the local median rent. That’s in line with experts’ recommendations for budgeting.
From the Panhandle to the Keys, teachers’ incomes can’t keep up with housing costs.
Based on the USA TODAY analysis not a single county pays starting teachers enough to meet that threshold. The situation barely improves once teachers start moving up the pay scale. Only three districts — Escambia, Leon and Putnam — have a median salary that meets the state’s relatively high cost of living.
Rising housing costs in population centers have made it nearly impossible for teachers to live where they work. The problem is most prevalent in Monroe County, home to the Florida Keys, where teachers must put nearly two-thirds of their take-home pay into housing costs alone. Of 155 rental listings on Zillow, only five are available for $1,333 or less — the amount it would take to make things affordable for a teacher making the district’s median pay.
The low median wages are not explained by an abundance of first-year teachers at the bottom of the pay scale — Florida’s 172,046 teachers have roughly 12 years of teaching experience, on average, according to the state Department of Education.
With a mounting teacher shortage, state leaders have agreed low pay threatens student performance, workforce readiness and Florida’s competitiveness in a global economy. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared 2020 the “year of the teacher” in his budget proposal, but as the legislative session winds down, the governor and lawmakers remain split on the best solution.
The good life?
Douglas Bickings is living the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle — sort of.
The 62-year old automotive technology teacher falls asleep most nights in a bunk on “Romance,” his 40-foot sailboat docked in Marathon in the Keys, a mecca for sport fishing and legendary tropical paradise immortalized by Buffett.
But the Parrotheads envisioning life in the Keys as a nonstop, carefree bender would be sorely disappointed by Bickings’ day-to-day experience.
Bickings teaches future auto mechanics at Key West High School, where nearby one-bedroom apartment can easily be $2,000 a month. Bickings opted to dock his boat, worth roughly $100,000, in Marathon for $725 a month, sleep on the sea and commute more than an hour on U.S. 1 each day.
“I really don’t have a whole lot of playtime,” Bickings said. “As soon as I get done in the afternoon, I am headed to the boat. I work until I fall asleep. Get up at 4 a.m., get ready, haul butt and get here again.”
Monroe County easily ranked as the least affordable spot in Florida for teachers, with the median teacher spending nearly 70% of their monthly take-home pay on rent.
Even with his cramped living space and long commute factored in, Bickings is living the good life compared to many of his colleagues, many of whom have to work two jobs and live with roommates, Monroe School Board member Sue Woltanski said.
“They see after they work here a few years that they will not be able to own a home, and we know that they will have to go somewhere they can own a home one day,” she said.
Blood for money
Monroe is an outlier in Florida — a unique string of islands where property is at a premium.
But the factors that have priced teachers out of Monroe dominate the state. The counties least affordable for teachers share similar characteristics: A skyrocketing cost of living, growing population and geographic limitations — whether it’s the ocean on the east, the gulf to the west or the Everglades.
While rent is just one cost of living, economists view it as a telling metric for how feasible it is for teachers, first responders, service industry workers and workforce laborers to live in the communities that need them.
In the Fort Lauderdale metro area, rents have nearly doubled since 2009, from $1,122 a month to $2,085 a month, according to data from the Council for Community and Economic Research. In nearby Miami, rent has increased 58%. Orlando’s population is exploding, and rental rates have increased 42%, and in Jacksonville rates are up 28%.
Teacher salaries have not kept pace. The median teacher is earning 7.86% more now than they did in 2009, but once cost of living is factored in, teachers are making 7.67% less than they were at the peak of the recession, according to data from the Florida Education Association.
Sarasota County has long boasted higher-than-average starting salaries, thanks in part to a voter-approved optional property tax to boost salaries. However, as housing costs have increased, teachers have increasingly had to turn to second and third jobs to cover their expenses.
Teaching full time and working the deli counter at Publix in the evenings wasn’t enough for 25-year veteran teacher Holly Hicks to cover housing costs in Sarasota, where the housing market is driven in part by high-income snowbirds whose houses sit empty half the year.
Looking for quick cash that didn’t require more hours on her feet, Hicks has turned to selling her plasma. She gets $70 a week for three hours of selling her blood, and she has the scar tissue and needle marks to prove it. It’s not ideal, but teaching is the only career she knows, so her plasma is a small sacrifice to do what she loves.
“To try and train and start something new is scary,” she said. “I just don’t know another profession where you can see the difference you are making.”
‘No room for error’
The demand for affordable housing in Florida has never been stronger, and supply is low. So why aren’t affordable housing developers popping up all over the state, filling a niche that has been well documented, with millions of teachers, service workers, first responders and hourly employees in need?
The simple answer: The builders would go out of business.
The developers who buy up large swaths of land to build entire neighborhoods must navigate density restrictions limiting the number of units allowed in an area, rising land, material and labor costs, government fees and some portion of the infrastructure costs.
In Manatee County where growth has exploded over the past decade, only a handful of developers specialize in affordable housing. Bill Manfull, whose firm builds homes ranging from $159,000 to $192,000, estimates that he makes roughly $6,000 per home sale, and that is if everything goes perfectly.
“Our profit margins are very little,” he said. “No room for error.”
For Manfull to build a house, he needs to find an infill lot that already has water, sewer and electric hookups. The lot can’t be overgrown because labor for clearing the land eliminates his profit, and the house site needs to be near the street — every additional foot of driveway or water lines boosts the cost. It’s not easy to find lots that meet all those criteria — Manfull estimates there will be none left within five years — and the maximum he can pay for each lot is $25,000.
Once he has found land that checks all the boxes, he must work a deal with the county on impact fees — the per-unit fee builders pay local governments and school districts to offset the increased demand new construction places on public services.
Without government assistance, Manfull said, building affordable housing “would be impossible.”
And he must keep unexpected surprises to a minimum.
On a recent project, thieves stole the water heater and air handler out of a house, erasing his profit.
Building affordable apartments is no simpler.
In Orange County, nearly every apartment is occupied, with a 96.1% occupancy rate, according to HUD. That means rent is high, and the need for more multi-family units is on the rise, with early-career teachers at the top of the list among those who can’t afford to buy.
But nothing mobilizes opposition like a proposed apartment complex.
Builders ranked NIMBYism as the greatest obstacle to building affordable multi-family units, in a survey conducted by the National Apartment Association.
The critics who pack local commission meetings in opposition to low-income housing development make it harder for builders than cost, government regulations, land availability or labor unions, the report found.
Year of the Teacher?
DeSantis says he wants to ensure no teacher in Florida earns less than $47,500.
That would be a significant change. Only one district — uber-expensive Monroe — pays its starting teachers that much. Even looking at median pay, only 22 districts told USA TODAY they pay at or above that amount. But DeSantis’ proposal has sparked concerns about rookies earning as much as veterans — an issue both the state House and Senate have sought to address within their budget proposals.
Though the two chambers have crafted budgets with money to raise teacher salaries, there is a $150 million gulf between them. The House’s would allow six districts to raise minimum salaries to $50,000 and provide pay bumps to roughly 170,000 teachers statewide. The Senate funding would provide lower raises overall, but include pay hikes for employees besides classroom teachers.
“The cost of rent in Jacksonville is climbing while our salaries have remained the same for years,” said Anitra Aljada, 27, who works as a school counselor at Oakleaf Junior High School in Clay County. “In my role for example, I am considered a teacher and my job requires a master’s degree, but I may get left out of the raise.”
Whatever lawmakers decide, educators in Florida are losing patience. The fight for pay raises drags on, while housing costs sprint beyond what teachers can afford.
The frustration is evident whenever public educators gather.
Putnam County teacher Kelly Bradford still misses her “beach shack,” a mobile home with no air conditioning she rented on Anastasia Island, while teaching near St. Augustine in St. Johns County. Despite the heat and bugs, Bradford said living near the beach “offset the suffering.”
But St. Johns lags the state in teacher pay, and rental rates continue to rise, so Bradford traded island life for a one-bedroom apartment in Palatka, 30 miles inland in Putnam County, which is one of the most affordable counties in the state for teachers.
When she sees that she could earn $15,000 more a year if she moved to Atlanta and have a similar cost of living, she gets angry.
“It pisses me off, to tell you the truth,” she said.
Hilary Pinder, 31, grew up in Martin County and teaches there now, but she, too, has moved farther away to stay in her preferred profession, going to St. Lucie County where housing costs less.
“I can’t afford to live in my home town or where I teach,” she said. “... for a county with so much money, they’re so tight-pocketed.”
Other teachers are abandoning the profession.
Rebecca Walters, 37, quit her job teaching middle school in Polk County to tutor. It’s technically a pay cut, but she said she is bringing more home, now that she no longer has to pay for after-school childcare and spend her own money on classroom supplies.
“The district talks about teacher retention as one part of their five-year plan, but whatever they’re doing doesn’t seem to be working,” she said.
At the British Open Pub, Stringer, the chemistry-teaching waitress, shocked a table of visiting New Yorkers when she told them she also taught full time at the nearby high school. One of the patrons, Dennis Donohue, is a retired teacher, and his daughter is a first-grade teacher in New York, where she earns six figures — a salary close to what assistant superintendents in Florida earn.
Dennis’ wife, Karen, watched her husband teach elementary school for 34 years, and she hated the idea of Stringer waiting tables until 10 or 11, and then getting up by 5 the next morning to head to school.
“I felt sorry for her,” Karen said. “They work too hard to have to work two jobs.”
Florida Times-Union reporter Emily Bloch, TC Palm reporter Sommer Brugal, St. Augustine Record reporter Christen Kelley, The Ledger reporter Kimberly Moore and USA Today reporter Erin Richards contributed to this report.
Affordable low priority for state leaders
As Florida’s housing costs have increased, state lawmakers have annually taken money from the Sadowski Fund, Florida’s pot of money designated to help low-income families with housing costs.
Over the past 12 years, lawmakers have shifted roughly $2 billion that was raised through a tax on real estate purchases to increase affordable housing and used it to balance the state budget.
Gov. Ron DeSantis had promised to use the money for its intended purpose this year, but last year the governor signed a final budget that pulled $125 million from the fund.
This year, the House’s budget would pull $240 million from the fund, while the Senate and governor remain committed — at this point — to fully funding the fund for the first time in years.
Local governments receiving the funds decide how they are used, and many designate the money to go toward down payment and closing cost assistance for first-time homebuyers. Teachers are among those most likely to tap into the available money because their income is low enough to qualify, but stable enough to meet standard mortgage requirements.
“That is a major program that teachers look for,” said Jamie Ross, Florida Housing Coalition President. “Ultimately, they want to be first time homebuyers.”
As housing has moved increasingly out of reach for teachers, school districts are getting creative.
In 2018, as teacher strikes swept the country, the Miami-Dade School District proposed including a floor of apartments for staff in a new middle school in the trendy Brickell neighborhood of Miami. The initial project is modest in scope, with the school most likely housing 10 school employees, but Miami-Dade is also moving forward with plans to build more than 200 affordable housing units in a school-district owned property.
Sarasota School District officials are looking into building affordable housing for teachers on some parcels of unused land once slated as future school sites. District officials in both Miami and Sarasota stressed that education remained their key mission, but housing has become almost a necessity.
“I don’t know that we as a school district want to be in the housing business, but we have the need and we have the land,” said Jody Dumas, Sarasota School District chief operating officer.