More than 70% of Austin ISD employees are burdened by housing costs, survey finds
More than 70% of Austin ISD employees are burdened by the cost of housing in the city, according to an online survey the district conducted this year. Many say the high costs are pushing them to move outside of Austin and to consider leaving their jobs altogether.
Austin ISD's Director of Real Estate Jeremy Striffler said the results of the survey were stark.
“I think that strong response made clear that this is a real issue for so many,” he said. “That really points to the need and I guess the encouragement to try to address this in some way."
Just over 27% of AISD’s 10,060 active staff participated in the survey between Jan. 23 and Feb. 1.
The survey results show 73% of employees spend more than 30% of their salary on housing. That figure is significant because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says people are cost-burdened if more than 30% of their income goes toward housing costs, such as rent or mortgage payments.
The survey also broke down results by position. It found nearly 74% of Austin ISD teachers and librarians are spending more than 30% of their salary on housing. The percentage of other staff members, like maintenance, food service and custodial employees, spending more than 30% of their income on housing is even higher — about 80%.
Survey respondents were pretty evenly divided between renters and homeowners: about 50% rent while about 47% own their homes. Two-thirds said they share housing costs with a spouse, partner, roommate or family.
More than 76% of the employees who participated in the survey were women. Forty-seven percent of respondents were white, nearly 39% were Hispanic and just under 9% were Black. More than half were between 30 and 49 years old.
The survey also posed this question: “How are you currently impacted by housing costs in the City of Austin?”
Certain themes emerged repeatedly in the anonymous answers. Staff said they've had to move farther away from Austin and take on second jobs, and they've struggled to cover basic expenses, let alone save money. Some said they're considering leaving their jobs.
“Property taxes are going up faster than my pay,” one survey participant said. “There is no sustainable way to be a teacher in this town at what AISD is paying.”
Another employee said they moved seven times since starting to work for the district because of rent increases. Others said they were forgoing home repairs, facing increasingly long commutes and “drowning in debt.”
Striffler said when high housing costs make it harder to retain and recruit staff, school communities are disrupted.
“We know that the turnover at the district — that has a real impact on the day-to-day of the students,” he said.
That can take the form of larger class sizes, Striffler said, but it can also mean that students might not see familiar faces on campus year to year because teachers, bus drivers and custodial staff might not be able to afford to stay in their jobs.
What solutions is Austin ISD considering?
The top solution employees want to see is raises. Austin ISD officials have said they are looking to increase teacher salaries by at least 5% in the 2023-2024 budget. Other options that survey participants proposed include a gas stipend, a housing stipend, more remote work options and property tax relief.
Austin ISD is also looking at building housing on properties it already owns that district staff and families could afford relative to their income. Striffler said this effort is not in lieu of increasing salaries.
“We're trying to just further supplement by giving [employees] the resources they need around housing, because the fact is, even if we increase salaries, that doesn't change the fact that rents and home prices continue increasing here in Austin,” he said.
One property the district wants to develop is the Anita Ferrales Coy Facility in East Austin. Striffler and other Austin ISD officials held community meetings over the last year to help develop a vision for the site, which houses the Alternative Learning Center, the Library Media Center and service providers such as VELA.
Striffler told the Austin ISD school board on Thursday that the goal is to build apartments at the site, and the rents would be below market rate. He said there is also a need for family-size units, “not just individual studios that are so prevalent now in all the new apartment buildings that are being built.”
Austin ISD wants to retain ownership of the Coy site but lease the land to a developer that will build and operate the housing. Interim Superintendent Matias Segura said it was important for AISD to maintain ownership of the land to ensure that affordable housing is built. He pointed out that previously the district has sold properties.
“All the intent of having land be repurposed to support affordable housing went away as soon as that title was out of our hands,” he said. “And so in this way, we can actually control and ensure that what we want to have happen actually happens.”
One of those properties was the Baker School. Austin ISD sold the property to the owners of the Alamo Drafthouse, who said they wanted to build affordable housing on the site. Since the sale in 2017, no affordable housing has been built there.
Striffler also emphasized that AISD wants to find a developer that shares the district's commitment to sustainability and community engagement.
“We're really looking for a partner. This is not a one time thing where they build housing and they leave,” he said. “They're living with us, they're cohabitating with us and they're going to become part of that community as much as this housing will be.”
Striffler said the district would use revenue from that ground lease to build a new Alternative Learning Center at the same site that is more responsive to students’ needs. He also said that the district would not be the apartment landlord or collect rent, and while Austin ISD employees would get first dibs on apartments, they don’t have to be employees to live there.
“For example, if a staff member or a teacher were to leave the district ... they're not going to be evicted just because they no longer work with us,” he said. “Instead, it's their income that will be the qualification.”
District officials are asking the board to approve a resolution in late March that would allow administrators to issue a request for proposals. Any deal in the future will also need board approval.
Striffler and Segura said a potential lease with a developer could be for 75 to 99 years to ensure the long-term affordability of the apartments.
Other Texas districts looking at housing
Other school districts in Texas have also pursued affordable housing as a way to attract and retain teachers. Pflugerville ISD, which neighbors Austin ISD, included teacher housing in the district’s 2022 bond package. Voters approved the proposition.
PfISD Superintendent Douglas Killian told KUT ahead of the election last November the district was looking to buy or build an apartment complex. The goal is to help teachers transition into the area.
“They would come in and occupy those anywhere from half the semester or as long as a year or more as they get their feet on the ground in Central Texas,” he said. “And then we would hope that they would move into the community here or around us and become permanent members of our communities.”
Killian, like Austin ISD officials, said it’s hard to attract teachers to the region because of high housing costs.
“When we’re trying to attract them from the Dallas Metroplex, or from Houston,or even from San Antonio, the cost of living is quite high, and that eats up a lot of what we can pay to teachers,” he said.
Another Austin ISD repurposing project
In addition to repurposing the Anita Ferrales Coy Facility, Austin ISD officials are asking the school board for permission to turn Pease Elementary into a child care center. Pease is one of four elementary schools the board voted back in 2019 to close to save the district money.
Striffler told trustees that offering affordable child care was another strategy the district was looking at to take pressure off employees' finances amid high housing costs. He said offering early child care and education at the site would honor the legacy of Pease, which is also a Texas Historic Landmark.
“It was really important for the community to have students back in the building,” he said.
The Austin ISD school board is also expected to consider a resolution at their March 23 meeting that, if approved, would allow the district to issue a request for proposals to find an early child care and education partner to operate the site. The district would retain ownership of the property.