Housing: how to fix the teacher shortage

By Scott Eacott

Legislation requires governments to provide every child with a quality education, regardless of where they live and what school they attend. 

But meeting this requirement is at risk because of  two crises: housing affordability and teacher shortages. 

As we require children and youth of a certain age to attend school, we need to be able to staff those schools. Ensuring staff can access quality housing within commuting distance of their workplace is a major challenge, one that needs new ways of thinking. 

Housing the education workforce (as with other essential workers) should be thought of as necessary public infrastructure

An adequate supply of quality housing for educators should be assured through government planning and implementation. Just as communities need roads, transport, health services, and schools – they also need essential workers. Otherwise, we risk the prospect of schools without teachers.

Research has revealed 90 per cent of teaching positions in Sydney, more than 50,000 full-time equivalent posts, are in Local Government Areas (LGA) where it is unaffordable to rent or buy on a teacher salary. Half of all statistical areas (SA2) in Sydney have a higher average salary than a teacher salary (up from 31% in 2017-2018). The gap between teacher salaries and housing costs continues to widen, with no sign of letting up.

The impact is already being felt. Nearly two-thirds of Australian schools report daily activities are being compromised by staffing issues, 10,000 classes are uncovered each day in NSW, and as of January 2024, 47 per cent of teacher vacancies (n=844) in NSW were in metropolitan areas. Schools need to pay incentives and allowances to meet rising housing costs in the city.

The state of play

Housing is considered affordable up to three times an annual salary. Using the latest data (September quarter, 2023), median housing sales costs in all Sydney LGAs are severely beyond that – five times the annual teacher salary right at the top of the range times) annual top of the scale teacher salaries. 

Across the state, over one-third of LGAs have median housing sales greater than five times an annual top of the scale salary.

Based on December quarter 2023 (latest data), across the state, 43% of LGA have a median rent that is unaffordable for a graduate teacher and 13% for a top of the scale teacher. However, if focused on Greater Sydney, all LGAs are unaffordable for a graduate teacher, and 44% of LGAs are unaffordable for a top of the scale teacher. Put simply, the long-term sustainable staffing of Sydney, and NSW (as with elsewhere) schools requires new approaches.

A case study: Parramatta LGA

Identified as one of five super-growth LGAs, needing an additional 1,347 teachers by 2036, an increase of nearly 70 per cent on present levels, Parramatta represents a key challenge for meeting staffing needs.

Median house sales are greater than six times a top of the scale salary and rents are severely unaffordable for a graduate teacher.

Current evidence shows a greater distribution of the points of origin for the workforce over time. And as a result, commuting distance and time spent travelling are increasing. Research has shown that increased commuting time has a negative impact on productivity and well-being. 

Problems and Possibilities

The NSW Government’s Shared Equity Home Buyer Helper scheme has income ($93,200 for singles, $124,200 for couples) and property value ($950,000) limits where only graduate teachers (Step 1 and 2) are eligible. Based on the latest median sales figures (Q3, 2023), non-strata properties in 89% of LGAs, and strata properties in 29% of LGAs across the city are ineligible.

AWARE Super has launched an Essential Workers Housing Portfolio, with properties in Epping, Hurstville, Miranda, and Waterloo. Rents are set at 80% market value to help essential workers live closer to where they work.

Evidence from the Center for Cities and Schools in California indicates that it can take between five and ten years from conceptualisation through to tenants being housed in education workforce housing projects.

Overall, there is an absence of context sensitive independent research to deliver the evidence needed by governments, developers, and systems, for interventions.

Where to focus our attention

There is a compelling case for change. And the window is rapidly narrowing for decisive action to avoid multi-generation implications for schools, communities, and most importantly, students. 

We know salaries cannot keep up with housing costs, that there is limited availability of quality housing stock in many areas, that commuting times are increasing adding to an already tiring workday, and that productivity, retention, and personal well-being gains can be achieved with reduced commutes.

Three things policy makers should do:

  1. Revise shared equity schemes so that income and property cost thresholds reflect the reality of current city circumstances. Success would be having shared equity schemes available for all teachers who want it and in areas nearby workplaces.
  2. Expand targeted housing developments through public – private partnership with tax incentives to house education workers near where they work. Success being the availability of high-quality housing stock within proximity of workplaces.
  3. Build the evidence base to inform interventions. Success being improved decision-making quality through robust independent research and data infrastructure aligned with interventions.

These problems are not unique to Sydney, but common throughout Australia. The ideas presented here alone will not solve the teacher shortage nor the affordability of housing. 

Initiatives to attract and retain teachers mean little if they cannot afford to live within commuting distance of their workplaces.

Scott Eacott is
 professor of education in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. He leads an interdisciplinary research program on the intersection of the teacher shortage, the housing crisis, and the organisation of education. The central question of this program is ‘How accessible are schools for their workforce?’ His work seeks to develop tools for governments, stakeholders, systems, and educators to better understand how best to meet legal, social, and cultural expectations in the provision of education.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “Housing: how to fix the teacher shortage

  1. Tom Worthington says:

    Teachers in very remote areas will need special provision of housing, however that is not the case in urban areas.
    Teachers, and other essential workers, should be paid a wage high enough to be able to afford adequate housing.

    Rather than dabbling in housing policy, what education academics can do is design teacher training programs which include a “Plan B”. To allow for the possibility (or almost certainty) that teachers pay and conditions will not be acceptable, teachers should be trained in how to get a job outside teaching.

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