Education

Living in Miami on a teacher’s salary? Good luck finding a place you can afford

A sign posted outside a home for sale on Southwest 112th Street in Pinecrest on Wednesday, June 10, 2015.
A sign posted outside a home for sale on Southwest 112th Street in Pinecrest on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Miami Herald Staff

Miami is one of the toughest places in the country for teachers to find housing they can afford.

That’s according to a new report from Apartment List, an online apartment marketplace that compared median rent prices on its site to teacher salaries in cities across the United States. Miami ranked near the bottom — 47 out of 50, below other pricey places like Washington D.C., Boston and Los Angeles.

For Miami-Dade teachers, the finding hardly comes as a surprise.

Take Kelly Hobby and her husband Jeffrey, former Miami-Dade teachers who moved to Marietta, Ga., last summer after struggling for years as their salaries failed to keep pace with skyrocketing rent prices.

Kelly, 34, has a master’s degree and more than ten years of teaching experience, but only made around $45,000 a year as a Miami-Dade public school teacher. Her husband, 36, taught math at a charter school where he earned even less. Although they didn’t have car payments, student loans or credit card debt, Kelly and Jeffrey both had to get a second job after they had a child.

The final straw was a letter from their West Kendall apartment building hiking the rent from $1,200 to $1,400 a month.

It’s ridiculous. If you’re a teacher you cannot survive in Miami.

Former Miami-Dade teacher Kelly Hobby

“It’s ridiculous. If you’re a teacher you cannot survive in Miami,” Kelly said. “It broke our hearts to move. It was devastating leaving. And it was something we thought about for a really long time. We were happy in our careers, but it literally just became quality of life.”

The Hobbys left their families behind when they moved to Georgia, but with the lower cost of living they were able to buy their own home. Kelly also got a $20,000 salary bump when she took a teaching job in Marietta because of her master’s degree. When she learned that she was going to make more than $64,000 a year, Kelly said, she burst into tears.

The Hobbys’ experience is just one example of the struggle teachers face in expensive coastal cities. In close to a third of the largest U.S. cities, the Apartment List analysis found, teachers have to spend more than a third of their income on rent. San Francisco is the least affordable place for teachers, followed by New York, Seattle and Miami.

And the more years a teacher spends on the job, the worse the problem becomes.

A first-year Miami teacher sharing a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate might spend 36 percent of his or her salary on housing, Apartment List found, which is already above the 30 percent benchmark experts recommend as a maximum for rent. But for a teacher with ten years of experience, who might have children and therefore need more space, renting his or her own two-bedroom apartment could eat up as much as two-thirds of their paycheck.

To compare cities across the country, Apartment List analysts factored in different housing needs for older teachers. And while in many cities the salaries of more experienced teachers lagged behind the costs of housing a growing family, this was especially true in Miami.

“I would say the trend was even more drastic in Miami than in other cities,” said Andrew Woo, one of the data scientists who worked on the report.

One of the reasons is that while teachers in other cities get higher raises as they accrue experience, a teacher’s base salary in Miami stays relatively flat, the report found. A New York City teacher could go from making around $52,000 a year to $77,000 after ten years, according to the analysts, who looked at baseline salaries and factored in some additional salary bumps for master’s degrees and other certifications. In Miami, the analysts assumed teachers were making $40,800 as a starting salary and just over $46,000 after ten years.

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Kelly and Jeffrey Hobby used to teach in Miami-Dade, but they moved to Georgia because of low salaries and high housing prices in South Florida. Courtesy of Kelly Hobby

That number doesn’t take into account the extra funds teachers can get for everything from sponsoring a club or teaching an extra class to earning a specialist degree, which can add anywhere from $500 to $8,000 to a teacher’s salary, said Dawn Baglos, the school district’s administrative director of labor relations. Nor does it factor in other benefits like the free or low-cost health insurance and childcare subsidies some district employees qualify for, Baglos said. Under the district’s current salary schedule, which was modified in recent years to give teachers salary boosts earlier in their career, a teacher with ten years of experience could expect to make somewhere in the ballpark of $50,000, she said.

The report also focused on metropolitan areas, comparing rental prices only in the city of Miami. The researchers noted that in Miami and other coastal metropolises, teachers can save money by living outside city limits. But in many cases, that means enduring a long commute to work every day. Coastal cities “are some of the worst examples where teachers are looking at more than a two-hour commute to stay within the affordable housing range,” Woo said.

And that’s just to rent an apartment. Forget about buying a home.

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Miami-Dade public school teacher Ana Valdes is living at home with her parents while she tries to save up for a condo. Courtesy of Ana Valdes

At least, that’s been Ana Valdes’ experience. The Southside Elementary teacher works in Brickell and has been saving money to buy a condo somewhere where she won’t have a hellish commute. The ten-year veteran teacher makes $43,000 a year, but with many sellers asking for a 20 percent down payment, most condos remain out of reach. So for the time being, Valdes and her 13-year-old daughter are living with Valdes’ parents in Palmetto Bay.

“I’m a 37-year-old woman. I feel restricted in the sense that I can’t have my friends over for a get-together,” Valdes said. “I love my parents to death, but still I’m more of an independent person.”

Dominique Butler is also saving up for a place of her own. The 42-year-old special education teacher currently lives in a 3-bedroom duplex about 20 minutes from her job at Sylvania Heights Elementary in West Miami. Butler shares the duplex with a roommate, but she still spends about half of her take-home pay every month on rent. To compensate, Butler works three jobs, tutoring and teaching classes for a private math program in her spare time.

“I’m not looking for a property that I can afford with all my jobs,” Butler said. “I’m looking for a property I can afford with just my teaching salary.”

Every time she finds a home in her price range, however, it’s either snatched by a cash buyer or in need of substantial repairs. Butler has a folder full of failed housing contracts.

I’m not looking for a property that I can afford with all my jobs. I’m looking for a property I can afford with just my teaching salary.

Miami-Dade public school teacher Dominique Butler

And it’s not just that housing prices are sky-high in Miami-Dade, Butler said. Teacher salaries also haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.

“Affordable housing for teachers is very difficult in Miami and a lot does have to do with the fact that our salaries have been stagnant,” Butler said.

That’s because Florida’s education funding formula has stopped using a multiplier that factored in regional cost of living differences, said Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. That multiplier made more money available for teacher salaries in expensive areas like Miami-Dade and Broward County.

“For us to recruit teachers to work in a higher cost of living area, we need to continue to be competitive and increase compensation,” he said. “Miami-Dade’s beginning as well as average teacher salaries are higher than state averages but still insufficient to meet local requirements.”

The United Teachers of Dade, which began its annual contract negotiations with the school district on Wednesday, also cited insufficient state funding for education to explain teacher salary woes. Florida ranks near the bottom of the country when it comes to the amount of state funding allocated per student.

“Unfortunately we have a leadership in the state legislature that continues to underfund education thereby impacting teacher salaries,” said union president Karla Hernandez-Mats. “Instead of giving teachers really quantifiable salary raises they put up little gimmicks like Best and Brightest we have repeatedly said we don’t want,” she said, referring to the controversial teacher bonus program that rewards educators based in part on their own SAT scores.

Some Miami-Dade teachers even apply for food stamps to supplement their salaries, Hernandez-Mats said. And a bill under consideration in the state legislature (SB 856/HB 373) that would impact how easily teachers on annual contracts are rehired could exacerbate the problem, giving teachers less job security and therefore making it harder for them to invest in homes, Hernandez-Mats said.

Miami-Dade is looking into creating affordable housing options for its teachers. The school district is currently in negotiations with Miami-Dade County, the City of Miami and Related Urban Development Group to build a new secondary school on the site of a Brickell housing project and hopes to provide affordable housing options for teachers in the building, Carvalho said.

But in the meantime, teachers in Miami-Dade and elsewhere are leaving the profession. School districts across the country face massive teacher shortages: One recent report predicted that the United States will be short 100,000 qualified teachers by the year 2025.

Those who don’t leave teaching sometimes find they are better off moving. In cities like Memphis and Detroit, teachers can spend as little as 15 percent of their monthly income renting an apartment, the Apartment List analysis found.

When former Miami-Dade teacher Hobby moved to Georgia last year, she met several other former South Florida educators at her new job orientation. Hobby said the trend doesn’t bode well for the future of Miami-Dade schools. “I really worry that if something is not done there’s going to be a brain drain,” she said. “I worry about the future.”

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