When Rebecka Hendricks taught in Louisville, Ky., she could afford a three-bedroom house. When she moved to Denver, she barely managed to rent an apartment.
Hendricks said she earned roughly the same salary, about $47,000 a year, in Kentucky and Colorado, but had to move in with roommates to handle the high cost of living in Denver. She also drove for Lyft and delivered food for Postmates to make ends meet at the end of the month, she said.
“Even then, it was a crappy apartment off of Colfax where there was no parking, no laundry,” she said.
A pair of recent analyses showed that teachers struggle to find affordable housing in Denver, but the situation has improved somewhat since 2000 despite skyrocketing real estate prices.
Both reports, developed by housing search websites, define affordable housing as costing no more than 30 percent of a household’s income. ApartmentList estimated about 23% of teachers in the Denver metro area were “cost-burdened,” while Trulia, which focuses on houses, said only about 5.4% of homes in the area — or about 1 in 20 — were affordable.
The ApartmentList report used the incomes and housing costs that people who listed their occupation as teaching reported in the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual survey. It found some improvement from 2000, when 31% of teachers reported unaffordable housing. The Denver area also improved compared to other areas, from 49th to 31st out of 50.
That might seem counterintuitive, given the increase in rents in Denver. Between 2000 and the second quarter of this year, average apartment rent in the city doubled, rising to $1,520 from $763, according to data from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver.
But teacher pay also has gone up. ApartmentList found teachers’ median salary — the point where half of people earned more and half earned less — had increased from less than $35,000 in 2000 to $50,000 in 2017.
It also could be that housing in Denver isn’t actually more affordable, but teachers have found ways to stretch their rent budgets, said Chris Salviati, a housing economist at ApartmentList.
“Given that housing costs have been increasing rapidly in the Denver area, this may reflect changes in the locations and living arrangements that teachers are choosing (i.e. more teachers may be choosing to live in the most affordable parts of the metro or to take on additional roommates),” he said in an email.
The news isn’t so good when it comes to purchasing homes, however.
Trulia found about 5.4% of homes in Denver were affordable to a teacher making the median salary in 2019, down from 12.9% in 2017. It placed the median salary at $54,678, which would create a ceiling of $1,367 per month for a mortgage and associated costs like property taxes. The difference in the median salary could be because ApartmentList’s analysis includes preschool teachers, and Trulia’s didn’t.
With a median home price of $445,900 in Denver, only about one in 20 listings met the affordability standard as of May, assuming a typical mortgage length and down payment. Only two cities, San Jose and San Francisco, had a lower percentage of homes on the market that would be affordable for the median teacher. It’s difficult to compare how Denver ranked in 2017, because Trulia used a different list of cities that year.
The issue goes beyond teachers, Hendricks said. People who provide medical services in schools, like psychologists and audiologists, are on the same payscale as teachers. Many leave education quickly because they can earn more in other sectors, she said.
Jessica Dominguez, a Denver Public Schools teacher who took a leave to work housing with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, said the connection between housing and schools is far bigger than where educators can afford to live. When students are displaced from their homes by gentrification, their school attendance suffers, and that can derail their educations, she said.
Affordable housing is complicated, and developers typically have to find other sources of revenue, such as tax credits, to make up for the lower price those units will command compared to those that sell at the market rate, Dominguez said. Interfaith and other groups are trying to find ways to reduce costs, such as persuading mission-minded churches that have extra land to consider leasing it for housing. Schools that have extra space might be able to do something similar, she said.
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Much of the conversation about housing is led by neighborhood groups that oppose greater density, Dominguez said. Before affordable housing projects can make progress in Denver, someone will need to talk about how the current situation is affecting children, and about each community’s needs, she said.
“I don’t see schools at the table with housing issues,” she said. “We need all the stakeholders (involved) at the process of development, and right now it’s only the homeowners.”
Any attempts to create more affordable housing likely won’t yield results for some time, though. For now, Hendricks said she partially solved the affordability problem by moving to Lakewood. She was able to stop working the extra gigs, but still has a roommate and added a 45-minute commute each way, she said. She was planning to quit teaching, until Denver Public Schools agreed to increase pay after teachers went on strike earlier this year.
“We’ll see if it’s enough,” she said. “I really love teaching and I don’t want to leave it, but I don’t want to live the rest of my life living paycheck to paycheck.”