Record-high rent forcing teachers into tough choices

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — In less than a month, central Florida educator Ladara Royal will head back to work at Lake Buena Vista High School. For more than a decade, he has taught in Orange County where schools have long fought to hire and retain teachers, but this year, he fears the situation could be worse.

“Parents should be very worried,” says Royal. “We have a lot of teachers who are retiring early and then we have those who are not at the age of retirement who have decided to leave and enter the private sector.”

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According to the Florida Education Association, the state is short some 9,500 teachers right now, with low pay only part of the problem.

“Forget about living near the school where you teach. We can’t even afford to live in the county where we teach,” says Royal.

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According to real estate brokerage company Redfin, the average rent in the Orlando-Kissimmee metro area is $2,179 a month, an increase of 19.1% since last year. The average starting salary for a teacher in central Florida is about $48,000 a year, meaning that more than half of a teacher’s pay would go to rent, before taxes.

Right now, according to the Florida Department of Education, the state has 720 schools that are listed as being a “high priority” and in need of teachers. Of those schools, 131 are in central Florida.

“At $48,000 a year you can’t pay rent, because you must make three times the income,” says Royal.

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Setting aside one-third of pay for rent means any rent greater than about $1,333 a month would be a strain. Of the 131 central Florida schools on the “high priority” list, just 20 have an average rent below $1,400 a month, according to rental data from Zillow.

“I’m really concerned about what is going to happen in the next year or so,” says teacher Gretchen Robinson, who is currently looking to get a part-time job.

For the last decade, the Florida Legislature has raided the state’s affordable housing trust fund, spending the money in other places to balance the budget. This year, lawmakers again raided the fund — only this time, the money was set aside for home down payment assistance for teachers and emergency workers.

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However, home prices have been soaring too, with Redfin finding average home prices in the Orlando metro area increasing 19% over the last year, with the average home price at $375,000. Again, the cost of living is out of reach of teachers.

“I’m home broke because my paycheck just doesn’t reach to consistently cover all of my expenses,” says Gretchen.

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