HONOLULU — Kevin Starks is living a classic Hawaii story.
The California native became an educator through Teach for America in Oklahoma, then shipped off to the Aloha State. He now teaches eighth grade science and spends the rest of his time surfing, playing volleyball and enjoying the natural splendor of the islands.
There’s just one problem: Teaching in paradise has become too expensive.
“I’m 31 years old, living with two roommates in a dump place,” Starks said. “I have almost no savings. I want to stay and get a home, but it’s looking more and more like that’s not possible.”
Hawaii has always been one of America’s most expensive places to work and live — and visit, for that matter. But for the state’s public school teachers, many of whom came from the mainland with visions of working amid year-round sunshine, the lack of affordable housing remains one of the top turnoffs.
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Soaring rental prices are causing many teachers to cram in with their parents, if they live nearby, even as they consider starting families of their own. Or they elect to move to the mainland to teach, where they can afford to buy a house.
The result: A chronic teacher shortage predominantly felt in Hawaii's lowest-income schools.
Some educators are skeptical anything can fix the problem and retain the island's teachers.
“There are bills in the works here for teacher housing and for teacher tax credits, and not one of them has a funding source,” said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
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Eye-popping home and apartment prices
The median sale price of a single-family home in Honolulu reached a record high of $812,000 in September 2018, according to the Honolulu Board of Realtors. The median price of a condo peaked last year at $435,000.
Rental prices, by extension, continue to soar. Consider this: A young teacher in Hawaii with a salary in the bottom 25% of educators would earn about $3,330 monthly. But it would take 70% of that monthly pay to afford the median rent in Hawaii, according to salary, rent and housing data provided to USA TODAY by Zillow.
And that’s before reducing any part of that salary to account for income taxes.
Sound impossible? That’s because most of the time, it is.
USA TODAY did find one young teacher who is living alone, but she only is able to do so because her parents own her one-bedroom condo in Waikiki. They only charge her the $800 monthly maintenance fees for the unit — instead of the $1,500 to $1,700 per month a regular tenant would pay in rent.
Krysten Irion, who is in her fourth year of teaching, earns $56,805 in annual gross pay as a science teacher at Jarrett Middle School in Honolulu. She takes home about $1,200 per paycheck after taxes and benefits contributions. She can only afford to do the job she loves because her parents help her out, she said.
“I honestly would be living at home” otherwise, said Irion, 28, who grew up in Hawaii and earned her bachelor's and master's degree in California.
“Almost all my friends are living at home, despite what career they're in,” Irion said. “It’s not just the cost of housing. Groceries are also really expensive. Grapes aren’t 88 cents here; they’re $3.99 per pound.”
Healthy salaries don't help much
Starting teacher salaries in Hawaii are actually higher than in many states. First-year educators with a bachelor’s degree and a teacher certificate currently earn $48,400. Someone with a bachelor's degree but no teacher credentials (teachers can work on temporary permits if they are working toward certification) would start around $36,000 to $37,000.
A master's degree can boost a teacher's pay by around $4,000, and experienced teachers can also get a $5,000 bump by earning their national board certification. Working in schools or regions that are considered hard-to-staff can also earn teachers an annual bonus of several thousand dollars.
But factor in the cost of housing here, and the pay that teachers actually take home is much, much less.
"There's no way I could afford the apartment I live in without my husband," said Jenny Howe, 28, an English teacher at Roosevelt High School in Honolulu.
Howe grew up south of Seattle and moved to Hawaii nine years ago. She and her husband taught English in Thailand for a while, then they both moved in with his parents in Hawaii so she could pursue a teaching degree and he could attend graduate school.
Now that her husband is employed full-time and works from home, their combined incomes allow them to live in a $1,625 per month, one-bedroom, 600 square-foot apartment within walking distance of Howe's school. Both their desks are in the living room, and there's no dinner table.
Howe still has more than 70 monthly student loan payments in her future. But she and her husband are looking at buying a condo. Prices for two-bedroom units are between $400,000 and $600,000.
"People have said, 'This could be your starter place,' but it just seems so impossible," said Howe.
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Losing 1,200 teachers per year
One unfailingly sunny afternoon in February, Rosenlee, the teachers union president, was inching away from the office. In typical island congestion, he was making three miles of progress in 20 minutes. He works in downtown Honolulu. He was heading to his home on the cheaper, leeward coast of Oahu, Hawaii's most populous island.
“My daughter in middle school over the past two years has had four long-term substitute teachers,” said Rosenlee, who lives in Ewa Beach. “The vast majority of people want to pay our teachers better, but because everyone is struggling to make ends meet, funding becomes difficult.”
About 1,200 teachers in Hawaii resign every year, leaving the education department scrambling to fill positions in the statewide school district.
The percentage of resigning teachers who noted “leaving Hawaii” as their primary reason climbed to 52% in the most recent state staffing report, up from 48% in previous years.
To be sure, there's a shortage of other essential workers in Hawaii as well, such as doctors and nurses and child psychiatrists. Housing costs aren't the only factor. Many professionals from the mainland feel isolated or grow weary of being so far from home.
For teachers who do stay in the state, salaries at the upper end of the pay scale are $80,000 and above. Plus, they can eventually retire with a state pension — though teachers now contribute 8% of their gross monthly salary to the retirement system.
Some say Hawaii should aim to reduce teacher turnover by better developing homegrown talent. Cynthia Covell, the Department of Education's head of human resources, said that's important, but there aren't enough locals going into the profession to meet the state's needs.
"We cannot get all of our teachers from Hawaii," she said. "A good 50% to 60% of teachers come from mainland recruiting."
The department has ramped up its mainland recruitment efforts in the past two years. As of early 2019, representatives were planning visits to seven cities to touch every region in the lower 48 states.
Teachers-only apartments: New solutions on the mainland
The lack of affordable housing is, of course, driving away teachers in high-cost cities on the mainland, too.
Ground zero is Silicon Valley, where the tech industry has driven up the cost of housing beyond what most teachers can afford.
At least three different districts in the San Francisco Bay Area are considering or moving ahead with plans to build affordable housing for teachers. A staff survey in the Palo Alto School District revealed employees were spending anywhere from 75 minutes to more than four hours commuting from more affordable areas.
In other states, rural districts that have struggled to keep staff because of their remote locations are pursuing similar solutions. In Vail, Arizona, a small town outside Tucson, the district is building tiny homes on district land that its teachers can rent, rather than commuting in from the city.
In New Mexico, one small, rural district has reduced staff turnover by offering subsidized rent. For teachers in Thoreau, that means paying as little as $475 monthly for a two-bedroom apartment, utilities included.
Some urban districts have also supported housing for middle-income workers as a way to retain teachers.
In Baltimore, two renovated factories-turned-apartment complexes give full-time teachers a discount of up to $300 on rent. And a free service called Teacher Props connects educators with roommates and matches them with row-home landlords who want good tenants.
Plenty of ideas, but Hawaii's teachers expect little change
In Hawaii, lawmakers are considering several efforts to help with teacher housing. So far, there are few indications any of them will move forward.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige’s budget request included a proposal to build condos on government land. Middle-income residents such as teachers could buy the condos, which would be more affordable because the state would continue to own the land.
"We know that teacher retention and recruitment is a huge challenge," said Ige, a Democrat, in an interview. "We're looking at ways we can take on that challenge collectively."
Another bill would provide housing vouchers to full-time teachers who teach in hard-to-staff schools and whose incomes don't exceed 80 percent of the area’s median income.
The department of education, teachers union and the Democratic Party of Hawaii support the proposal. But the state’s Housing Finance and Development Corporation believes the program would be too difficult and expensive to administer.
Hawaii lawmakers, almost all of whom are Democrats, have not shown a great appetite for raising new money for schools — or for raising teacher salaries to address the rising cost of living.
Unlike most states, Hawaii does not pay for schools with property taxes. Money for schools comes instead from income taxes. Last year, a ballot question to change that was invalidated by the Hawaii Supreme Court, which ruled the question was misleading to voters.
Most Hawaii teachers seem resigned to the fact that nothing will change anytime soon.
Starks, the teacher from California, works at a low-performing middle school in Honolulu. He said it’s common for at least 10 teachers per year to leave his school. They only have a staff of about 35.
Teachers from the mainland arrive every year, he said, but many can’t see a future for themselves on the island after a few years.
“You’re going to live in a junk place for sure, and you’re going to pay more rent than you’ve ever paid in your life, and that’s just kind of how it works here,” Starks said. “There’s no way I can raise a family where I’m living now.”
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Living with 2 roommates in a dump': Hawaii is too expensive to be paradise for teachers