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A private home sits across from Manual High School, at the intersection of 28th Avenue and Williams Street in Denver, on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Fewer than one-fifth of homes across Colorado are affordable to teachers who make an average salary in their district, even as average teacher salaries have increased by about 25% in the past seven years, according to a report published Tuesday by the nonpartisan Keystone Policy Center.

The report puts numbers to a problem that prices teachers out of homes in the communities where they teach and forces another challenge on school districts in attracting and retaining educators: Last year, teachers in 24 school districts lived in communities where less than 10% of homes were within financial reach for an educator making an average salary in their district.

“It matters enormously if teachers can live in the community in which they teach,” said Van Schoales, senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center, a Keystone-based nonprofit that works to solve community challenges related to education and other issues. “And unlike many other professions coming out of the pandemic, teachers can’t work remotely. At least most teachers can’t. And we now know that most remote learning doesn’t work well. And so quality schools depend upon quality teachers, and teachers need to be able to live in their communities or at least near their communities where they’re teaching.”

“In a number of places, we’re at a crisis point,” Schoales added.

Among the districts where houses are least affordable for educators are those in Colorado’s mountain communities as well as in metro Denver, northern Colorado and Colorado Springs — where collectively more than 80% of the state’s educator workforce lives. The report looks at average teacher salaries district by district and determines the maximum amount of money a teacher could put toward a home, no more than 30% of their monthly pay. The report analyzes the number of housing units, excluding rentals, within school districts that fall at or below the maximum price a teacher could afford and also breaks down the number of homes affordable to teachers earning more or less than the average salary in their district. 

Last year, less than 20% of nearly 1.9 million Colorado homes were within financial reach for teachers, according to the report, with higher interest rates pushing many out of their range. Those include all homes, regardless of whether they were for sale. Rental units were not surveyed as part of the study.

With few homes affordable to teachers, districts struggle to draw and keep them.

Without the opportunity to buy a home and begin to build personal wealth, “people don’t stay,” Schoales said. “They leave. I think from a systems perspective, you have a lot of churn.”

That adds a lot of pressure to school districts at a time many are already suffering teacher shortages, with some so desperate to fill classrooms during the past school year that they turned to administrators to substitute teach.

The report notes that 14% to 17% of Colorado teachers walked away from their positions at the end of each school year over the past five years. In 2021, 13% of all vacant teacher positions were covered with a kind of Band-Aid known as a “shortage mechanism,” which includes relying on long-term substitutes and retired teachers.

This interactive graphic, created by the Keystone Policy Center, allows educators to explore the percentage of homes they can afford in their district based on their salary. The graphic, which breaks down housing affordability district by district with 2021 data, also includes information about the housing market in 2007 and 2015.

In the state’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, educators who earned the district’s average teacher salary — $64,000 — in 2021 could afford 14% of homes in that district. That’s similar to the entire metro Denver region, in which 13% of homes were affordable to teachers earning their districts’ average salary, the report shows. Meanwhile, in northern Colorado districts, 13% of homes were affordable to educators at an average salary level; 14% of homes were affordable to Colorado Springs educators at an average salary level; and 12% of homes were affordable to educators who make an average salary teaching in mountain communities.

DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero isn’t shocked by the low percentage of homes within financial reach for teachers in his district after having navigated the Denver housing market with his family firsthand.

It will take more than just DPS to figure out how to help educators be able to live in the same place they teach, he said, as he looks to the city and others interested in finding solutions for the soaring housing market.

A private home sits across from North High School, at the intersection of Dunkfeld Place and Caithness Place in Denver, on Monday, Aug. 15. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Affordable housing is a key to keeping families in the city of Denver,” Marrero said, adding that with parents of children who attend DPS schools also impacted by high home prices, he’s concerned about declining enrollment in the district and the consequences it could have for DPS resources and students’ learning experience.

“We lose our educators, so we lose institutional knowledge, we lose expertise, we lose community connections,” he said. “And when it comes to our students and families, I think all of that applies because institutional and regional (and) cultural knowledge goes away. But more importantly, we lose our students, and at that point we really have to address the footprint of DPS.” 

Schoales also pointed out the ripple effects that stem from the broad lack of housing affordability among educators. One of them: It handicaps districts as they try to diversify their teacher workforces to better reflect the students they’re educating.

“This is exacerbated enormously for folks of color who are less likely to come from a place of having generational wealth to get them into homeownership,” Schoales said, stressing that that further challenges districts’ efforts to hire Black and Latino educators.

The dearth of affordable homes affects a range of districts statewide, but there are some bright spots.

Education leaders are quick to point out that Colorado is far from the only state where teachers are facing a housing crunch as districts in California, Texas, Washington and other states also grapple with housing markets that have boxed out teachers.

Skyrocketing home prices are pinching educators in metro, suburban and rural districts alike. In the suburban St. Vrain Valley School District north of Denver, for instance, less than 10% of homes were affordable to teachers earning an average salary of $65,000 last year, even as the local housing supply increased by 13% from 2015. That year, when the district’s average teacher salary was $53,000, teachers earning that much could afford 46% of houses.

Summit School District in Frisco is battling a similar shortage of affordable homes, with 6.5% of houses valued at a price that teachers who earned the average salary of $67,000 last year could reasonably buy. That’s an improvement from 2015, when less than 1% of homes in the district were affordable for the average teacher salary of $51,000.

Superintendent Tony Byrd, who is new to the district, knows how dire the lack of affordable housing is in his district, but he expected more homes to be accessible to educators than the number recorded last year. Teacher housing is one of his top priorities as he begins his first school year at the district helm, particularly as his rural district has been hard-pressed to recruit teachers since many simply can’t afford to live there.

“The single best thing you can do for kids’ education is have a great teacher,” Byrd said. “And if teachers can’t afford to live here we’ll continue to have a recruitment and retention problem.”

Byrd didn’t necessarily anticipate that part of his job in education would veer into housing, but it’s become less of a shock in recent years.

A home for sale in Frisco on July 14. Summit County has seen $932.9 million in real estate sales through May 2022, a decline from last year’s record-setting pace. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“Given the growing wealth gap over the past five to 10 years, this seemed quite inevitable,” he said, noting that he was up against similar challenges in his last district near Seattle.

However, the picture isn’t bleak in all of Colorado’s 178 school districts. Educators in 36 school districts lived in communities where 90% of homes proved affordable for a teacher making the average salary in their district in 2021. Homes in places like the San Luis Valley, the Pueblo and Raton Basin region and the Eastern Plains were significantly more affordable for educators. For example, 73% of homes were affordable to teachers in districts in the San Luis Valley who were earning their district’s average salary last year.

Increasing teacher salaries won’t solve for the lack of affordability.

Marrero, of DPS, connects deficiencies in school funding with the lack of housing affordability for teachers in his district, noting that if schools had a better mechanism for funding, districts might be able to pay educators more and help them have a better shot at homeownership. He looks to elected officials at the national level to drive change.

“They need to put action behind their words and help us be in a situation where we can reward quite frankly the hardest profession but also the most rewarding profession that exists,” Marrero said.

Yet while low teacher pay has long been one reason the profession struggles to retain educators, a bump in wages won’t fix the root of the housing issue, Schoales said.

“Increasing teacher salaries is important for lots of reasons,” he said. “It can help, but it won’t solve for this problem for most teachers in Colorado … because of the difference between the cost of a home and where salaries are at.”

In different parts of the state, home prices would need to drop significantly so that the same homes that were affordable to a teacher making the average district salary in 2015 were affordable to a teacher in 2021. For instance, Summit County house prices would have to drop by 51% while houses in the St. Vrain Valley School District, which includes Longmont, would need to plummet by 40%, according to the report.

One area in which districts and government groups could take actions around more affordable paths to homeownership is by developing their own underutilized pieces of property, Schoales said, citing one DPS high school that has a parking lot that is mostly empty much of the year with a high-rise down the way.

A private home sits across from Manual High School, on Humboldt Street between 27th and 28th avenues in Denver, on Monday, Aug. 15. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“(It) seems like some smart people could come up with some really creative ideas for how to create some housing and also have student and faculty parking,” he said.

Byrd, of Summit School District, said district committees focused on master planning, facilities and housing are beginning to work together to identify district-owned land that could possibly house teachers one day.  

Without a more intentional and immediate focus on finding ways to ease the cost burden of purchasing a home, Schoales said he worries about whether communities will be able to keep the mix of people who round them out.

“It’s going to hollow out those communities,” he said, “because of their inability to be able to keep the sorts of folks that we need in order to have a rich community.”

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin