How Housing Costs Can Affect Teachers’ Attitudes and Retention

Stress in Boom Times: Understanding Teachers’ Economic Anxiety in a High-Cost Urban District
Elise Dizon-Ross, Susanna Loeb, Emily Penner, Jane Rochmes
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Escalating costs of living—including housing costs—in cities like San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, DC, may prevent teachers, who have midlevel incomes, from moving to or staying in the area. This can be especially true for teachers working in high-poverty neighborhoods of increasingly unaffordable cities.

This study explores patterns of economic anxiety among teachers. The authors focus on teachers working in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the cost of a one-bedroom apartment exceeds 50 percent of a new teacher’s salary. Their analysis examines how economic anxiety affects factors that can influence students’ outcomes, including teachers’ attendance, retention, career aspirations, and regard for their job.

The study used unique survey data administered in partnership with SFUSD and Stanford University in 2016, as well as administrative data collected from SFUSD. The survey collected 2,266 responses and asked teachers to rank their perception of their financial insecurity and their access to outside financial support. Using these data, the authors analyzed how levels of economic anxiety predict teachers’ attitudes and behavior that might influence their teaching and retention.

Key findings
  • SFUSD teachers were more likely to rent and less likely to own a home, and they have far longer commutes than other workers.
  • Forty-eight percent of SFUSD teachers reported being frequently anxious about their current financial situation, compared with 17 percent of a national sample of employed adults.
  • Twenty-seven percent of SFUSD teacher renters and 13 percent of SFUSD teacher owners found it very difficult to cover their rent or mortgage, compared with 4 percent and 3 percent of a national sample of employed adults, respectively.
  • Teachers who reported being frequently anxious had a lower regard for teaching than the overall sample of teachers and were 8 percentage points more likely to leave the school district than less-anxious teachers.
  • Teachers who find it very difficult to cover housing costs miss more days of school and are more likely to be chronically absent than the overall sample of teachers.
  • Financial anxiety is particularly high for teachers in schools serving large proportions of Black students, in part because these schools were farther from teachers’ residences. 
Policy implications
  • School districts and local governments interested in reducing turnover and growing the supply of teachers in urban schools might consider partnering to increase affordable housing closer to schools, offer housing stipends or low-cost loans, and make financial crisis grants available to teachers.