Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series looking at the challenges of recruiting and retaining teachers in Hawaii.
WAIMEA, HAWAII ISLAND — For Hawaii public school teachers Annie O’Brien and Heather Luster, an ordinary, drab-looking structure parked behind an elementary school has been home for the past year.
What it lacks in aesthetic appeal, it more than makes up for in affordability. The women, who are neighbors, pay $500 a month for their studios, with utilities ranging from $50 to $80. Their rent is deducted directly from their DOE paychecks.
“I realize that’s a very great deal,” said O’Brien, 60, an Australian who moved to the Big Island a year ago from the mainland to teach in special education.
But once O’Brien vacates her apartment after the school year is up, she’s uncertain whether Hawaii’s cost of living makes it worthwhile to stick around in her job.
The high cost of housing in Hawaii is one of the major factors preventing many educators from staying on the islands.
“Leaving Hawaii” for the mainland surpassed retirement as the top reason for voluntary teacher separations from the DOE starting around 2015, according to the department’s most recent employment report.
Teachers who can’t afford to stay in the regions where they work create a gnawing issue around the U.S., such as in the San Francisco Bay Area. Teachers are decamping to more affordable areas of California or leaving the state altogether.
In Hawaii, a licensed first-year teacher has a starting salary of just under $50,000. Dense urban areas like Honolulu might see teachers crowding into one space as roommates to save on rent.
Rural areas of the state don’t necessarily present more affordable options: in Waimea, an average one-bedroom unit can easily climb to $1,500 or more a month, which would surpass the recommended 30% cap on rent as a portion of one’s monthly paycheck for a starting teacher.
And while the DOE offers teacher housing in some areas of the state, it’s a limited supply and just for transitional purposes. There are 59 units statewide, located in the most rural parts of neighbor islands. There is no teacher housing on Oahu, where the majority of teachers are based.
“I feel I’m living in temporary accommodations,” O’Brien said. “I would rather have a more permanent place to live, I suppose.”
Some wider-ranging proposals, such as providing DOE teachers with housing vouchers to help offset rent or the cost of a mortgage, were proposed by Hawaii lawmakers this year but got little traction.
Last month, the DOE announced a new partnership with a Northern California start-up company to provide up to $120,000 in down payment assistance to teachers who want to buy a home here in exchange for a 25% share of the home’s appreciation or loss when the home is sold or refinanced after 30 years.
“Six teachers living in one house tells you the story of what’s happening in Hawaii,” state school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said at an April 30 press conference in support of the new partnership. “We need to make homeownership a reality and we need to keep our best and our brightest teachers here.”
Though Luster and O’Brien teach special education at Waikoloa Elementary and Middle — about a 25-minute drive to the southwest of Waimea — they choose to live in quieter Waimea because it offers teacher housing, unlike the residential community nearest their school.
While some affordable housing complexes have been built to accommodate a growing population of families who work in the tourism industry and send their kids to the public schools, the “Village,” as Waikoloa’s residential community is known, is largely inaccessible to those without a two-income household.
The Waimea DOE teacher housing complex consists of four studios, four one-bedroom units and two two-bedroom units. The nondescript structure is situated right behind Waimea Elementary School, where a lone yellow school bus sat parked near the driveway one Sunday afternoon in February.
Both Luster and O’Brien have spruced up their adjoining 500-square-foot studio apartments with personal touches to give them a more cozy feel.
For O’Brien, that’s meant painting her walls a pale shade of yellow from its original beige, draping her windows with gauzy white curtains ordered off Amazon and placing a framed photo of her adult children in the sitting area.
Luster, 23, placed a row of potted plants on her windowsill and filled a large bookcase with science fiction novels to read in her spare time.
Their windows offer panoramic views of the natural beauty of the rural landscape.
But the bare bones way of living sometimes grates on O’Brien.
“I can do it for a year, but I’m older so it’s different for me,” she said. “I think I should have a washer and dryer, I think I deserve one. I’m 60 years old! I think I should have a real bed. Those things are more important to me I suppose because of my age.”
“Six teachers living in one house tells you the story of what’s happening in Hawaii.” — Hawaii School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto
Come next school year, these apartments will likely be occupied by new teachers with new belongings and new stories of arrival in Hawaii.
That’s because DOE teacher housing, whose purpose is to provide temporary accommodations to teachers new to the area, only guarantees occupancy for one year and allows a maximum stay of three years.
“I might stay in Hawaii if I could find something affordable but spending such a large part of your salary on accommodations is sort of a moot point,” said O’Brien, sitting at her round kitchen table that doubles as a desk.
The lack of affordable housing for teachers is also a big concern for their principals, who want a stable staff.
“They just can’t afford it. That’s the bottom line,” said Waikoloa Elementary and Middle Principal Kris Kosa-Correia, a graduate of Oahu’s Kailua High School. “I wish they (the DOE) could afford to buy apartment buildings and have a big apartment unit with one, two and three-bedroom units close to every school.”
Kosa-Correia loses teachers each year. Last summer, she had 10 vacancies to fill.
“It’s always hard to put a lot of money and energy and professional development and all this stuff into a teacher and have them only stay one or two years. But I do it. I do it every year,” she said. “Because we don’t want them to not have the skills and everything else that we share.”
Parts of the Big island, due to its geographical land mass and large distances from one end to the other, are considered “hard to staff,” meaning the DOE prioritizes the area as far as assigning new teachers.
In the 2017-18 school year, about 200 of the state’s newly hired 1,380 teachers, were assigned to schools on the Big Island, according to the DOE employment report.
It’s not only the high cost of living, but the isolation of living somewhere as rural as Waimea without a support network that can also pose a challenge for young, new teachers.
Luster, who along with O’Brien did not want to be photographed for this story, was interviewed two years ago at a DOE recruitment fair in her home state of New York.
Never having set foot on the Big Island before, Luster found out she would be placed at Waikoloa in May 2018, several months before the start of the school year.
The town, about an hour’s scenic drive north of Kona, is a tourist destination in its own right as the home of the historic Parker Ranch.
But Waimea can also feel pretty deserted for a 20-something just out of school. Luster described life here as quiet and slow, with little to offer young professionals by way of a community or entertainment.
It’s also not cheap. “I’ve stopped eating berries,” Luster said sarcastically, citing the high cost of produce. She and O’Brien occasionally make trips together to Kona to pick up household items at Target or Costco to save on expenses.
Luster chose not to go home to her parents on the East Coast last winter break to save money. In the span of two months starting in January, she read an average of three books a week.
“One can only read so many books a week,” she said.
Hired at a salary of roughly $49,000 a year, Luster also pulled down a second job as a nanny for a family who lives in the Mauna Kea resort, watching their 4-year-old several times a week after school, generating about $150 to $200 in extra income weekly.
DOE’s partnership with Landed, the Bay Area start-up that is offering down payment assistance to teachers in certain urban hubs around the country, is a new option for some teachers who want to buy a home and for whom the model makes financial sense.
At a recent informational session at Farrington High School, several dozen DOE employees crowded inside the library to hear Ian Magruder, Landed’s director of partnerships, describe the program and field their questions.
“This isn’t going to be a magic potion that’s going to solve all your problems, but we hope it will help you stay in the profession,” said Keith Amemiya, senior vice president of Island Holdings Inc., which helped bring Landed in through the Hawaii Executive Conference.
Enthusiasm level among teacher attendees was high.
The Landed option “pushes up the timetable” for his plans to purchase a home, said Joe Manfre, 30, an eighth-grade algebra teacher at Honolulu’s Central Middle. He was still on the fence about pursuing such an arrangement at the end of the meeting, though he said he would definitely fill out an application of interest.
Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, has urged teachers to approach the proposal with caution and says it’s not the answer to keeping teachers in the state.
“It takes away responsibility of the Legislature to find a solution that will work. It stops the discussion of what Hawaii needs to do,” said Rosenlee, who argues that higher salaries are the key to teacher retention.
He pointed out there were several teacher housing bills this past session that all died. Senate Bill 114, for instance, proposed a teacher home assistance program to offer $500 monthly vouchers to full-time DOE teachers and public charter school teachers who teach at a “hard to fill” school and whose median income is not more than 80 percent of the area median income.
Some areas on the mainland are going much further to tackle the issue.
The Santa Clara Unified school district in Silicon Valley, for instance, operates a housing complex where it rents subsidized one- and two-bedroom apartments to teachers, according to a 2016 San Francisco Chronicle article. The City of Mountain View in the Bay Area recently voted to approve a $56 million plan to have a local developer build a 144-unit affordable housing complex that will house many of the district’s teachers, according to The Mercury News.
Newark, New Jersey, offers a centrally located, community-centered discounted apartment complex for teachers and Miami-Dade County is looking at building a complex that would combine new school facilities with built-in residential living space, with first priority given to teachers.
The Hawaii DOE recognizes that high housing costs are one of the main challenges facing the entire state.
“Affordable housing is a statewide issue that impacts all of Hawaii’s residents, not only our teachers,” DOE communications director Lindsay Chambers said via email. “It is something that we as a state must address collectively with community partners and legislators.”
A new DOE strategic facilities master plan proposes several “teacher housing renovation” projects in areas where Hawaii’s existing teacher housing is located — including parts of the Big Island, Lanai, Molokai and Hana on Maui.
The DOE spends $550,000 a year to maintain and repair the housing units, which bring in about $325,000 annually in rental income, according to Dann Carlson, DOE assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services.
The units range from 20 to more than 50 years old, and sizes range from studios to three-bedroom units, at prices of $450 to $750 a month.
The DOE’s one-year cap on guaranteed teacher housing and the relative solitude that defined her past year won’t be much of a lingering concern for Luster.
She’s already decided to return to the New Jersey area after the current school year is up, citing her desire to move back home to be closer to family.
O’Brien said she would be tempted to stay in Hawaii if DOE teacher housing could be a more permanent option.
“Their philosophy is, they want to have the housing available for new people coming to the islands to teach – which I get,” she said. “But if they’re trying to retain people, then wouldn’t it make more sense to have the people who are already here stay?”
The grass is already looking greener in other parts of the country.
“I’m not prepared to pay $1,100 for a studio in Waikoloa or Waimea when I can go and teach in North Carolina and pay $700 a month for a mortgage,” O’Brien said. “And the cost of living is better.”
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.
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