teacher accommodation

Nightmare so far away: the truth about why teachers can’t live where they work

School systems are struggling to find enough teachers to cover classes. Projections indicate that in New South Wales alone there is a need for an additional 13,000 teachers in the next decade to meet student demand. This growth is mainly centred around Greater Sydney. Significantly, much of the growth is in areas not traditionally thought of as hard-to-staff. With such growth comes pressure on housing and concurrently with the teacher shortage, NSW (as with much of Australia) is grappling with a housing affordability crisis

What becomes of a school system – and individual schools – if teachers cannot afford to live near, or even within commuting distance of their workplace?

In a recently paper published in the Australian Educational Researcher, I show how 90.8 percent of teaching positions in New South Wales, representing more than 50,000 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) positions, are located in Local Government Areas (LGA) where the median rent and house sales price is severely unaffordable on a top-of-the-scale teacher salary.

The effects are felt most strongly by early career teachers. Using official quarterly sales and rental reports, there are 675 schools or 22,703 FTE teaching positions located in LGAs where the median rent for a one-bedroom place is unaffordable for new graduate teachers. Attracting new members into the profession when housing – even one-bedroom places – are unaffordable is a tough sell.

Not limited to new graduates, there are 70 schools or 2,059 FTE teaching positions located in LGAs where even a top-of-the-scale teacher (non-promotional position) cannot afford a one-bedroom dwelling. The most unaffordable LGAs are Bayside, Canada Bay, Sydney, and Waverley – all located in the inner circle of Greater Sydney (see Figures 5-8 of the paper).

And when it comes to house sales prices, forget about it. Median prices for both strata and non-strata properties are well in excess of the 3:1 ratio of cost to annual salary (ranging up to greater than 11:1). The attached figure displays an updated snapshot of the median non-strata sales price by LGA as a multiple of the top-of-the-scale teacher salary. Put simply, for a single teacher income household, or even a two teacher income household, the median sales price up and down the eastern seaboard is unaffordable. This has major implications for the health of the school system.

Substantial attention has been granted to the idea of the 15 minute city in recent times. While commute times in Australian cities are comparable to similar sized cities elsewhere, for many the daily commute is more likely to be 30 or even 60 minutes in cities like Sydney. In most cases, this is simply because it is too expensive to live any closer to work – but takes a toll on those commuting.

The impact of housing affordability on the teacher shortage has not received too much attention in public debate within Australia. Understandably, issues of workload, behaviour, conditions, salaries, and initial teacher education have dominated the headlines. This has allowed the issue of housing affordability to expand without pressure to intervene.

Housing affordability issues are most likely to impact schools that have traditionally been seen as desirable locations. Schools that have in the past, not had difficulties recruiting and retaining staff. But if nothing changes, they will simply be unaffordable and inaccessible for all but those already living in the area. This is what makes the intersection of housing affordability and the teacher shortage an urgent and timely matter. At the same time, it is a messy policy area. There is no simple fix, and arguably the time for action was 10+ years ago. However, not acting now just amplifies the problem.

The issue is of course not limited to teachers. It is felt by all essential workers. The Government’s shared equity scheme was a step in the right direction. So too is the investment of Aware Super in essential worker developments. These are consistent with interventions overseas where districts and local authorities build housing developments and incentivise educators. But piecemeal policy approaches will not address the issue at scale.   

No one government department or organisational body has ultimate responsibility for housing essential workers, but we all have a stake in it. Work underway at the Gonski Institute is hoping to raise the profile of the issue and engage governments, policy makers, industry representatives, and educators in developing viable options. This initial paper in AER is the first step of many.

Scott Eacott PhD, is deputy director of the Gonski Institute for Education, and professor of education in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney and adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Saskatchewan.